The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A timely reminder: Trump’s base is skeptical of the media’s role as watchdog

President Trump points to a member of the media as he takes questions during a news conference at the White House on Feb. 16. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
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Donald Trump came into office as the all-powerful chief executive of an organization. He quickly learned that, as president, his power was not so absolute.

Instead of simply mandating new rules for immigration, he has had to try to convince the courts that those rules should go into effect. Instead of getting Congress to rubber-stamp his policies, he has had to fight for individual votes. Instead of waving away suggestions that his campaign may have colluded with Russian actors to influence the 2016 election, he has had the matter hanging over his head, frustrating him to no end. Instead of the media falling in line to support the new president, he has found that the press’s skeptical analysis has continued unabated after the election.

That said, Trump also enjoys a level of political protection that past presidents did not. There won’t be an outside investigation of the Russia mess unless he signs off on it, or unless his party decides to buck the rampant partisanship of the moment and forces an independent commission to dig deep. Perhaps as importantly, a new survey from the Pew Research Center indicates that Republican voters are far more disinclined than in the past to think that the media has a role to play in checking Trump’s — or any political leader’s — power.

Since the 1980s, Pew has asked what the effect of media criticism has been on political leaders: Is it to keep politicians from doing things they shouldn’t, or is it to keep them from doing their job? It has historically been the case that members of the party that doesn’t hold the White House have said that the media’s criticism helps keep politicians in line. But from 2016 to 2017 — that is, from Barack Obama to Trump — the partisan flip was more extreme than at any point in the past. The gap between the parties on this subject is now 47 percentage points, with Democrats strongly agreeing that this is the effect and Republicans strongly disagreeing. That’s nearly twice the previous widest margin.

The implications of that are obvious. Republicans are far less likely than they were a year ago to view media criticism of political leaders as valid and useful. Instead, they see it as obstructive.

Part of this, of course, is the long-standing belief that the media is slanted toward Democrats and liberal politics. In Pew’s research since 1985, Republicans have always felt more strongly than Democrats that the media is biased. Here, too, the gap between the parties is wider than at any point before, though less dramatically so.

Confidence in the national media’s ability to keep Americans informed has slipped among Republicans and independents — and risen among Democrats. About 9 in 10 Democrats think the national news media does a very or fairly good job of keeping Americans informed; among Republicans, the figure is 7 in 10, down from 8 in 10 last year.

Distrust in the media has increased in recent years, as Gallup polling has shown. The fracturing of the media landscape and subsequent strengthening of partisan news outlets has played some role. So have high-profile mistakes from mainstream outlets — and a cultural push to offer pointed and often-partisan critiques of traditional outlets. (My bias here should be obvious.)

The net effect? At a moment when the media is examining the most unusual president in U.S. history, that president can enjoy some protection from what is reported simply by virtue of the mistrust his base of support holds for those news outlets.

The corollary question, of course, is whether Trump would have won the White House had Americans not been skeptical of the coverage of his campaign. In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted shortly before the election, 9 in 10 Republican voters — and 6 in 10 independents — said they believed the media was biased against Trump. Numbers like that offer an inoculation against media criticism that clearly plays to Trump’s benefit.

And Trump, as president, does what he can to keep his base skeptical of those reports.

Update: A new Quinnipiac University poll tackled the question directly. It found that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of how the media is covering Trump — including 9-in-10 Republicans and two-thirds of whites without college degrees, a core part of Trump’s base.