The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans welcomed the media as a watchdog under Obama. Under Trump? Not so much.

President Trump with supporters at a campaign-style rally in Billings, Mont., on Sept. 6. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
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The politics of media criticism is uncomplicated, as the chart below demonstrates. When Republican presidents are in power, Democrats increasingly see the media as critical watchdogs; and when Democratic presidents are in power, Republicans increasingly see the media as critical watchdogs. Dating back to the Reagan administration, there has been a slight seesawing effect between these groups and their feelings about whether news organizations stop politicos from “doing things that shouldn’t be done,” as the Pew Research Center puts it.

And over the past two years, the pattern has exploded. Republican support for the media’s watchdog role dropped from 77 percent in 2016 to 42 percent in 2017, and 38 percent in 2018. Set against 89 percent Democratic support in 2017 and 82 percent in 2018, the gaps are the largest in the three decades-plus that Pew has been asking the question.

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A safe bet: The discrepancies will persist at least as long as President Trump uses his position to discredit the U.S. media in nearly every public appearance. What’s less predictable is just how this dynamic will shake out over the long term. Many national news organizations — especially cable news outlets — have seen their financial fortunes tick up thanks to the endless loop of news stories stemming from the Trump White House.

What happens, though, after Trump leaves the scene, after the national news windmill slows down, and the believers in Trump’s “fake news” shtick remain on the sidelines? That’s something the surveys can’t tell us.