The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why do people believe the ‘big lie’? Because Americans don’t trust the media.

President Donald Trump talks with members of the media outside the White House on Oct. 30, 2020. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)
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Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) says Donald Trump is “preying on [the] patriotism” of his supporters by continuing to falsely assert that he won the 2020 election. It is true that millions of good, decent, patriotic Americans believe the former president’s claims that the election was stolen, despite the fact that Trump lost more than 60 cases in state and federal courts — including before judges and justices he had appointed — and the fact that his own attorney general, William P. Barr, says that the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the election outcome.

So why do so many Americans believe him? Because they don’t trust the media — and with good reason.

In 1977, Gallup found that 72 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in the news media. But this month, Gallup found that just 16 percent of U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers, and just 11 percent have confidence in television news. This collapse in confidence stretches across ideological lines but is most pronounced on the right. Just 5 percent of Republicans said they had confidence in newspapers (compared to 35 percent of Democrats) while just 8 percent of Republicans had confidence in TV news (compared to 20 percent of Democrats).

Public trust is crumbling, in large part, because of a growing perception of media bias. According to a Pew Research Center survey published this month, 76 percent of Americans believe the media should strive to give equal coverage to all sides of an issue. But a 55 percent majority of journalists disagree. The disdain for evenhanded reporting is even worse among younger journalists and those from left-leaning outlets: 63 percent of reporters ages 18 to 29 say both sides do not deserve equal coverage, as do 69 percent of journalists who say their outlet’s audience leans left. By contrast, 57 percent of reporters who say their outlet has a right-leaning audience think the profession should strive for equal coverage.

“What’s happened is there’s a younger generation of journalists … who think their job is to be subjective,” says Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush and author of the new book “Suppression, Deception, Snobbery, and Bias: Why the Press Gets So Much Wrong ― and Just Doesn’t Care.” “They don’t believe in objectivity. They don’t believe in two sides. They believe that their side, particularly on social issues and on racial matters, is the only right side.”

Erik Wemple: Shocker! Almost no one trusts TV news.

Half the country is keenly aware that they are routinely looked down on by much of the media, Fleischer says. He notes that a 2019 Pew Research Center study found that the only majority group of Americans who say the press understands them is college-educated Democrats. By contrast, 73 percent of Republicans, and 62 percent of all respondents with a high-school diploma or less, say they do not. “So, what you have is a group of college-educated Democrat voters — the mainstream media — telling stories and reporting news only for fellow college-educated Democrats,” Fleischer says.

The problem became more pronounced after Trump’s election. “When Trump won in 2016, many mainstream reporters decided that it was their job to save the republic from the bad decision that the people had made,” Fleischer tells me. Many pushed the discredited, Clinton-campaign-funded Steele dossier, as my Post colleague Erik Wemple has documented. Axios called this trend among “the most egregious journalistic errors in modern history.” Many promoted the now-disproven charge that Trump had engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia to steal the 2016 election. In 2020, while Americans saw hundreds of race-based protests descend into rioting, looting and arson, some in the media insisted the protests were “mostly peaceful.” Aghast at Trump’s calling covid-19 the “China virus,” many in the media suppressed the Wuhan lab-leak theory (until Joe Biden took office) and dismissed the Hunter Biden laptop story as Russian disinformation.

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Millions watched this biased coverage, and the animus toward Trump and his supporters, and began to tune out mainstream news coverage. So, in January 2021 — the very moment our country needed to separate fact from fiction — there was no neutral arbiter of truth that a majority of Americans trusted. Many people see journalists reporting on Trump’s false claims like the boy who cried wolf: They had issued so many false reports that when a wolf finally came, no one believed them.

The sad part is, many in the media see the Jan. 6 hearings as a vindication of their Trump resistance — proof that they were right about him all along. In fact, the hearings are as much an indictment of the media as they are of the former president. It was because of their collective failure to report objectively for four years, that when Trump finally told the “big lie”— and Americans needed to know the facts — few trusted the media.

It’s time for some soul-searching in America’s newsrooms, for their role in this catastrophic failure.

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