If there's one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on in this election, it's that the media suck.
Just 1 in 3 people told Gallup they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media to report the news accurately, the lowest that number has been since Gallup began asking the question in 1997. Republicans led the way — going from 41 percent to 14 percent on trusting the media in the past 19 years — but the numbers among independents (30 percent trust media to be fair) and Democrats (51 percent) have dipped as well.
“You deserve it!” you will say. “Journalism is dead!” you will say. (Trust me: You say these things to me every day!)
And there is truth in that. Including the coverage of the war in Iraq to the swing-and-a-miss on Donald Trump's potential as a candidate and yesterday's news that journalists have overwhelmingly donated to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, reporters have not exactly covered themselves in glory. That very much includes me — most recently for missing the Trump train early.
But I would submit that (a) the media's unpopularity is not the result of an organic uprising of the masses and (b) attempts to discredit and disqualify the mainstream media — especially by Trump in the closing stages of this race — are genuinely dangerous for the long-term health of our democracy.
Let's tackle the first point, um, first.
The media have been the subject of a decades-long negative campaign aimed at selling the “bad” and “biased” narrative. For years, the pushing of that idea was almost exclusively a Republican effort. But in the past decade or so, Democrats have heartily joined in. In that time, partisans — and even those more loosely affiliated with a political party — have been told time and again that the media are horrible and corrupt. Reporters are all political hacks in disguise, trying to push their liberal/establishment/elite agenda on regular Americans. (Related: Many of the people — whether in the partisan media or in the political world — pushing that narrative are doing so not solely because they believe it but also because it is a good business model for them.)
And, like most critiques, there is truth there. A study in 2013 showed that reporters were four times as likely to be Democrats as Republicans, for example.
The chart above illustrates the gaping hole in the media-is-terrible-and-partisan argument. No one mentions the fact that more than half of all reporters are registered independents in that chart — far more than either the number who were in the 1970s or the number who are registered Democrats or registered Republicans now. (Side note: I do not vote — if you were wondering.)
The problem for the perception of journalists is that while Republicans and Democrats have been out bashing the media — largely for their own political purposes — over the past few decades, the media have not been willing or able to respond in any concerted way. If we do, we are subject to something along the lines of “Sensitive much?” or “Looks like I hit a nerve!” or some other comment like that. (Don't believe me? Go read the comments section of this post. Or any post.) So journalists have largely sheltered in place, letting the incoming wash over us and insisting we are “taking the high road” or some such.
If you have followed politics for more than five minutes, you know that a negative attack unanswered is a negative attack believed. If one group allowed itself to be attacked relentlessly for decades, what do you think people would think of it? Something like this.
Now, to point No. 2.
What you have seen Trump do throughout his presidential campaign — and especially over the past two weeks — is aggressively run against the media and the long-built-up assumption that “they” (or “we” in my case) think people like you are stupid and your opinions do not matter. Although politicians of both parties have long used the media as a convenient scapegoat for peoples's dissatisfaction with the state of the country (see above), Trump has taken it to an entirely new level — turning the attacks personal and menacing.
Here's a sampling of his tweets in just the past few days.
And the crowds who come to Trump rallies appear to be taking their cues from the candidate. This WaPo article from the weekend tells that story:
Donald Trump’s rallies have never been the friendliest places for reporters. But lately, as Trump has come under increasing fire, an unwelcoming atmosphere for the press has turned into outright hostility.
Reporters who cover Trump on the campaign trail say his supporters have become more surly and abusive in the past week, egged on by a candidate who has made demonizing journalists part of his stump speech.
Trump’s traveling press contingent of about 20 has been met with boos, shouts and obscenities as it entered — as a single group — the venues where Trump has spoken this week. One reporter who is part of the traveling group described it as “a mob mentality,” particularly at larger rally sites.
The effect — other than the obvious intimidation — is already apparent. Many Trump supporters think that the mainstream media are so crooked — to borrow a favorite word from the Trump vocabulary — that they not only can't be trusted but need to be eliminated.
That is deeply dangerous. I have no illusion that people are going to suddenly like the media any time soon. But, there's a big difference between liking the media (or agreeing with the media) and believing they are a necessary part of a healthy and functioning democracy. I take no issue with anyone who doesn't like me or even “capital-J” Journalism. That's fine. But the increasing willingness to declare journalism dead and celebrate that fact is a very bad thing.
A country without any independent arbiters of facts and truth is a place in which the possibility of civil discourse is impossible. In that world, the tribalism that has run rampant in our politics for the past decade-plus would become total as both sides operated from their own set of “facts” without the need of any referees. And, if you've ever watched a game without any agreed-upon rules or anyone to enforce those rules, you know it's not a game at all but rather a total mess.
We are closer to that place today than you might be willing to admit. Which should be scary as hell whether you are a Democrat, Republican or independent.