First and foremost: Chuck Todd isn’t wrong.
The NBC News stalwart’s column in the Atlantic ably assesses the state of American media and, more specifically, the long-term effort by political conservatives to breed distrust in objective journalism. He isn’t wrong that this is not new to President Trump, and he isn’t wrong that the media have done a bad job stemming this trend.
The best analogy is that of climate change: No number of scientists weighing in to support the objectively agreed-upon idea that the world is warming is going to change the opinions of those who reject those assessments out of hand. Climate scientists tried for years to consistently demonstrate the evidence behind their beliefs, but the objections they faced weren’t born of rationality as much as a political sentiment deliberately fostered by those who found their science inconvenient.
The problem with Todd’s essay, in which he squarely identifies the culpability of Fox News and its former head Roger Ailes, it that it’s more of an autopsy than a diagnosis. Fox News has achieved the aims Todd outlines, but it’s no longer the only problem. Todd nails Fox, but he can’t answer the most important question: What to do now?
Let’s first demonstrate the accuracy of Todd’s case, as evidenced by a recent poll conducted by Suffolk University on behalf of USA Today. Suffolk includes a question asking respondents to identify their most trusted news or commentary source. Consistently, that source for most Republicans is Fox News.
The percentage of Republicans who point to Fox as their most trusted source is generally about twice the percentage of any other outlet identified by any other political group.
Among Republicans and those who most trust Fox News, views of the “news media” — a group from which Fox has been able to somehow distance itself — are broadly negative.
What’s remarkable is how views among those who most trust Fox and among Republicans are generally consistent. Consider views of Trump’s job performance as president.
A large reason for this, of course, is that about four-fifths of those who trust Fox News the most are Republicans, according to Suffolk’s polling. The Fox News audience is not exclusively Republican, but it is mostly Republican. And views of those who most trust Fox News — including non-Republicans, it seems — generally align with views held by members of the party.
So while most CNN and PBS viewers think the country is on the wrong track, most Fox News viewers, like most Republicans, think things are headed in the right direction.
The effect is broader than just big-picture views of the president and the country. Those who trust Fox News the most are, like Republicans, more likely to echo Trump’s argument that Russia didn’t seriously try to intervene in the 2016 election.
They are also much more likely to say they have “little or no” trust in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference and any connections to the Trump campaign.
There is, as always, a chicken-egg question. Is Fox reflecting the views of Republicans, or is it driving them? Clearly there’s some symbiosis, with Fox’s coverage (including that of the prime-time anchors identified by Todd) consistently bolstering the idea that Mueller’s probe is questionable. It’s also the case that Fox is covering the Russia investigation less robustly than its cable-news competitors.
So Todd is right about Fox’s role in the political moment. But he also makes an assertion that is overly narrow.
“Some of the wealthiest members of the media are not reporters from mainstream outlets,” he writes. “Figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and the trio of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham have attained wealth and power by exploiting the fears of older white people. They are thriving financially by exploiting the very same free-press umbrella they seem determined to undermine.”
Again: That’s all correct. If we look at the most trusted outlet by age, the density of the population citing Fox News as their most trusted source increases along with age.
But then we look at Suffolk’s polling on confidence in the news media by age.
It’s the youngest Americans who are most likely to say they view the media unfavorably — the group that’s also the least likely to put their trust in Fox News.
Fox News and conservative media more broadly have actively sought to undermine confidence in the mainstream media, to great effect. That effort continues. But the problem of confidence in the media is not solely a function of those efforts. Also at the Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz spoke with young people about why they do or don’t trust the media.
A 19-year-old from Tennessee, for example, offered that she didn’t believe there were neutral news organizations. “Each writer and editor has their own personal bias,” Emma Neely told Lorenz. “What they write, even if it’s a little biased, it’s still biased.”
Fox News and Ailes helped foster that idea, as Todd notes. But Neely almost certainly picked it up from somewhere else — perhaps from an Internet-based world where news media can often seem like social media: one voice sharing its thoughts to be considered along many others. That’s not Ailes’s doing. (It’s also not the only risk to the media that’s inherent in the social media ecosystem.)
Neely’s cynical position may be in part a function of her age; skepticism about institutions is obviously not something unusual for a 19-year-old. For those interested in fostering trust in objective reporting, though, it’s a challenging starting point for a generation.
Again: Todd’s autopsy isn’t wrong. To address the problem, he suggests “having a lower tolerance for talking points” and “not giving guests or sources a platform to spin our readers and viewers.” Both good (if not obvious) ideas. If your goal, though, is to convince Neely of the utility of objective news reporting, is it enough?