Faith in the American mainstream media has fallen to the lowest point in 20 years on the Edelman Trust Barometer tracking attitudes toward U.S. businesses and institutions, and it takes the Russians to do the plain talking as to why?
That pretty well sums things up in a nutshell.
RT, for those unfamiliar, is the government-funded Russian TV station formerly known as “Russia Today.” Think of it as PBS Russian style.
Some have described it as a Russian propaganda outlet, but that doesn’t mean it is always inaccurate in its reporting.
“‘Fewer than half of Americans trust mainstream media, according to PR firm Edelman’s annual ‘trust barometer.’ But rather than attempt to repair the relationship, media outlets blame their audience’s poor ‘information hygiene,”’ RT reported.
That broad brush statement is not true of all media outlets. Some understand that trust is earned not given, and that it takes more to earn people’s trust than to claim to be “the most trusted source in news.”
Still, the groupthink blaming of readers is widespread among journalists. Too many in the business believe readers should support journalists because they are the fountains of knowledge. Too many believe readers who question news judgment or coverage are fools.
And far too many journalists and former journalists, who seem not to understand that their behaviors reflect back on their former profession, these days prowl the sewer that is Twitter full of creatures mainly interested in poking a stick in the eye of those whose views are different from their own.
Here is one of them in journalism’s still-working class:
That is just one of the many Tweets on Klecka’s feed celebrating the election of President Joe Biden and bashing former President Donald Trump. Now granted, Klecka is primarily, though not solely, a sports reporter at the Peninsula Clarion in the small town of Kenai.
As a sports reporter, however, he should know better than many of his colleagues one of the greatest sins of journalism: fandom.
Fans make crappy journalists. Fans are emotionally invested in “their” team. Fans view the world through fan-colored glasses. Fans are subject to the fan bias that sees everything better than it really is when the team is winning and everything worse than it really is when the team is losing.
Journalists are supposed to avoid fandom because fans are largely incapable of reasoned judgment let alone that elusive thing called objectivity. Journalists are supposed to be more like the people trying to maintain the fairness in sports: drug testers, league officials, referees, etc.
One of the key societal jobs of journalists is to throw the flag on those who violate the rules. The mainstream media did a commendable job of this as regards former President Donald Trump.
Unfortunately, journalists may have done too good of a job given how easy the task when dealing with a regularly delusional president.
Now, before Trump supporters reading this explode, let’s all recognize the difference between name calling and the use of a descriptive word to define ” the act of believing or making yourself believe something that is not true” as the Oxford Dictionary defines delusional.
Trump regularly, though not always, displayed a Trumpian vision of facts in direct conflict with reality. In his defense, he was not the first president to do so.
The nation witnessed former President Bill Clinton claiming “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” because of his belief “sexual relations” had something to do with “what the meaning of “is” is.” And then there was former President George W. Bush declaring victory in the war in Iraq at a time when it was abundantly clear winning the peace in a country fractured by tribal divisions was going to be extremely difficult. And older Americans will well remember late President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) convincing himself he could win the war in Vietnam and leading the country into one of the biggest disasters in its history.
Still, Trump took delusional to a whole new level and then baited the media when called on it, which led to the latter overplaying its watchdog role from the start of his term in office. There is little doubt but that this added to the split in the horribly divided country America is today.
To go back to sports analogies, the mainstream media coverage of Trump’s lies was like a team of NLF referees deciding they were going to call a holding penalty on anything that looked like a hold on the part of Team A while largely ignoring Team B.
Serious fans of the National Football League know there’s hardly a play on which holding cannot be called on someone if the refs want to take things to the extreme.
The mainstream media took it to the extreme with Trump. As the Superbowl Champion of American politics, he certainly deserved a closer look than the other players in the game, but when the refs throw flag after flag at one team and almost wholly ignore the behavior of the other, well, the game starts to look unfair, if not rigged, to the fans of the team getting flagged on every play.
The partisan divide
The results of this are evident in the Edelman report. Its media release describes a “stunning 39-point gap in trust in media between Biden voters (57 percent) and Trump voters (18 percent); a 15-point drop among Trump supporters since November.”
That barely more than half of the Americans who voted for President Joe Biden trust the media is not exactly something to brag about. That 82 percent of Americans who voted for Trump distrust the media is a worrisome problem. And together the numbers become what the mainstream media should consider a nightmare.
The combined total there is 95.8 million people or about 61.5 percent of the 155.5 million who voted in the last election. This is approaching a national supermajority of distrust in media, or it is already there, depending on whether you take the three-fifths definition or the two-thirds definition.
Historians will no doubt one day pen lengthy tomes explaining how we got here. Politics surely played a part, but so did markets. When newspapers dominated the news in the country’s major cities decades ago, they brought a certain stability to the way readers viewed their sociopolitical environment. This was true whether the journalism those newspapers did was great, middling or bad.
A lot of it was middling. Some newspapers were boring as hell on a daily basis. As a writing exercise, it is fundamentally harder to craft an interesting story full of all those objective grays than a black-and-white tale of the struggle between good and evil.
Humanity evolved with stories of heroes and villains. After 200,000 years of this, we might well be genetically hardwired to favor narratives in the good guy-bad guy form, which is surely how many in this country today want see the world now even if they are part of a society that has changed radically in the last 75 years.
Bad today is far less bad than it was in 1946 in the wake of the revelations of the Holocaust in Germany, the war crimes of the Japanese across Asia, and our bombings of the major cities in those two countries, first with the fires of hell in Dresden and then the other worldly elimination of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with but two nuclear bombs.
That was bad then. Bad in America today is a society that isn’t perfect. Sadly, too, it will never be perfect because we all have slightly different ideas of what constitutes perfection. It’s why we regularly argue over the decisions made by referees in sports.
Fans of the Green Bay Packers are still angry that their team was somehow cheated out of the National Football Conference championship by a “bad” pass interference call Sunday, while fans of the game-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers rejoice that the referees made the “right” call.
And in the eyes of former player and coach Tony Dungy, now a NBC football analyst, both sides can easily justify their beliefs.
That anyone in America could take a similarly nuanced view of today’s battle between Republicans and Democrats is anathema to many in the mainstream media, not to mention to the warriors on either side of the country’s political divide.
The good Trump
From the beginning, some saw Trump as the good guy because he promised to “drain the swamp” in the nation’s capital. That a lot of Americans, especially rural Americans, feel disconnected from the country’s swamp-prowling overseers on the heavily populated coasts is obvious from the voting pattern of the recent election.
Trump support ran like a red river through the country’s midsection, and there were this time no Russian spooks to blame for it. Some Americans no doubt voted for Trump because they like to watch politics being played as circus entertainment, but there is little doubt that a good part of middle-America also saw Trump as their best option.
Lest anyone forget, Biden has spent his life in the swamp. He’s adapted to it. Trump wasn’t.
As a result, Trump also didn’t get much draining done. Transforming the massive federal bureaucracy to make it more efficient and citizen friendly was a task for which Trump was ill suited. Success there would require a truly Machiavellian president, and Trump was anything but Machiavellian.
No one would use any of those words to describe Trump. He is and was bombastic, combative, egotistic, aggressive and politically incorrect. Trump’s biggest accomplishment as President was to inflame a mainstream media which wants to be respected for its intelligence, its insight, and its general desire to to do “the right thing.”
A long-time political animal, Biden understood this. He convinced the mainstream he was the Democrat centrist who could beat the right-leaning President, though one might argue Biden was even more an entrenched operative of the wealthy, American ruling class than Trump.
“In early 1973, as Joe Biden was settling into his new job in Washington, DC, Ralph Nader published a deconstruction of what made the freshman Democratic senator’s state of Delaware, the most anodyne of states, so exceptional,” Tim Murphy wrote in Mother Jones in 2019. “The answer, ‘The Company State’ explained, had to do with the unique relationship between government and commerce: Delaware was less a democracy than a fiefdom, contorting its laws to meet the demands of its corporate lords.”
Chief among those lords are banking interests. Biden has spent most of his political career using “his influence to strengthen and protect” their interests, Murphy added.
“He cast key votes that deregulated the banking industry, made it harder for individuals to escape their credit card debts and student loans, and protected his state’s status as a corporate bankruptcy hub,” Murphy wrote.
“Biden’s career in the Senate placed him on the wrong side of some of the biggest financial fights of his generation….”
That would be the “wrong side” as defined by Mother Jones, a left-leaning magazine and website. Many, if not most, conservative capitalists might well consider Biden to have in the case of the banks been on the right side of some of the biggest fights of his generation, but that’s neither here nor there.
Biden still leaves Mother Jones a little nervous, but the magazine is celebrating Trump’s loss and now pondering what to do about the “one political party…committed to authoritarianism,” as writer Benjamin Carter Hett put it in a story last week in which he compared Republican supporters of Trump to Nazi party members in post-war Germany.
If Americans are truly worried about the rise of authoritarianism in this country, they should be more concerned about Biden, the president now in office, the president clearly more Machiavellian than Trump, and the president today operating in an environment trending toward the behavior of the infamous and long gone, Commie hunter from Wisconsin – Sen. Joe McCarthy – in the days of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Much of the media, let anyone forget, helped fuel the “Red Scare.” It was a dark time in America when many innocent Americans got caught up in the hunt for left-wing extremists. Now the government is firing up a hunt for right-wing extremists.
American history paints a troubling picture of how these good intentions can spin out of control. You would think a freedom-loving media might be concerned, but…
Launched in San Francisco in 1976, Mother Jones’ “socially conscious journalism” was made for the internet before there was an internet. The magazine was long considered outside the media mainstream, but the mainstream has crept closer and closer as the years have passed.
University researchers who studied the Twitter accounts of journalists four years ago concluded today’s mainstream journalists “are dominantly liberal and often fall far to the left of Americans. A full 78.1 percent of journalists are more liberal than the average Twitter user. Moreover, 66 percent are even more liberal than former President Obama, 62.3 percent are to the left of the median Senate Democrat (in the 114th Congress), and a full 14.5 percent are more liberal than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (one of the most liberal members of the House).”
The researchers, who published their work in Science Advances in April of last year, also reported that as of 2017, journalists were doing a good job of keeping their views out of the “news that they choose to cover.”
Whether that continued into the later years of the Trump administration is hard to say, but some noted journalists have questioned where the media has been going since 2017.
Former CBS chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan caused a firestorm in 2019 when she suggested people needed to read conservative news sites to counter-balance the liberal biases of the mainstream media.
And Glenn Greenwald very publicly quit the The Intercept, a left-leaning news outlet, last year, writing that “the same trends of repression, censorship and ideological homogeneity plaguing the national press generally have engulfed the media outlet I co-founded, culminating in censorship of my own articles.”
Greenwald’s insider reflections on the “repression, censorship and ideological homogeneity” common to groupthink and his decision to leave The Intercept are illustrative of a media growing less politically diverse and ever more insular.
It is a sad commentary on newsroom culture that ironically reflects the cliquish behavior the media has worried about elsewhere.
“Seeing conflicting opinions in your (social media) feed causes psychological discomfort, but not seeing them creates a warped reality,” NBC News headlined in 2019 above a story warning against just this sort of thing.
A comfortable clique, reporter Wendy Rose Gould wrote, causes people to:
- Overestimate the prevalence of their perspective
- Reduce their empathy for others.
- And close their minds to intellectual dialogue and “true change….Openly discussing – and more importantly hearing – each other on hot button issues is more likely to foster ideas and solutions that improve our world.”
Granted, the media was trending toward this pit of self-involved, navel gazing before social media. I went to work at the Anchorage Daily News in the early 1980s when everyone argued about everything all of the time. Over the decades that followed, the list of subjects about which discussion, let alone heated discussion, was considered acceptable steadily shrank.
I left the newspaper years ago, but know the people still in charge. They are decidedly not fans of the late Gen. George Patton’s idea that “if everyone is thinking alike, someone is not thinking.”
They live for groupthink as do many news organizations across the country these days.
How this came to pass is hard to say. But American newsrooms that emerged from the Vietnam War-era questioning everything government did increasingly became the partners of government bureaucracies. Maybe it was in the nature of journalism awards. Newspapers invariably win them by spurring the government to act.
Trump’s prattling on about draining the swamp, no matter how well it resonated with Middle America, was by 2016 out of line with mainstream media views on how the world could be bettered by government doing ever more. The media were much more in line with former President Barack Obama’s aims of “change” via government action than Trump’s alligator hunting.
This is a bias now so deeply ingrained that it is doubtful many of todays’ younger reporters even think about it while increasingly operating in their insular bubble.
When University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign journalism professors Nikki Usher and Yee Man Margaret Ng mined more than 134,000 Twitter posts from more than 2,000 Beltway journalists in 2018 to see what they were thinking, what the two researchers found were not just bubbles of groupthink, but microbubbles of groupthink.
“Our findings suggest even smaller, more insular communities of journalism that function as silos…with their own sets of concerns,” they reported in a 2020 paper published by Sage Journals’ Social Media + Society. “We know from existing research that these journalists are engaging in story ideas, joking around, and burnishing their own careers.
“They are doing so, however, within even smaller communities of like-minded journalists than have been previously considered. If journalists are talking to even smaller groups of journalists who share similar orientations, there is a real concern about the limitations of these epistemic communities in generating knowledge and information for the public….Newness is controlled and incorporated within these power domains, and critique that veers outside the norm of general banter or the emerging consensus may be disregarded.”
In breaking all of that down for a Urbana-Champaign university publication, Usher put it in much simpler terms:
Though the work of Usher and Ng was limited to journalists working in the Capital Beltway surrounded by I-495, the ideological and agenda-shaping “echo chambers” and Twitter realities their paper describes are not limited to the Beltway.
These have come to both shape and police journo-think on a much broader scale across the country and probably more so now than last year when Usher warned that “political journalists in D.C. are people who use Twitter all day. And so the question is what does that do to how they think about the world.
“And generally, from this paper and a previous one I did on gender and Beltway journalism, it seems to me that it can make things worse.”
Couple a Twittering echo-chamber to the mind-altering influences of Trump Derangement Syndrome and filter it all through the eyes of big-ego actors who think themselves way smarter than the average American, and Usher’s “can” is certain to become a “does.”
As a result, you end up with stories like this:
This NBC version of history reflects the mainstream media truth of the moment: The Trump presidency was a horror, and the Biden presidency marks a return to normalcy.
In reality, the Trump administration was often a politically chaotic mess, but life in the country went on pretty comfortably anyway.
Despite disruptions caused by Trumps trade war with China, the U.S. economy grew steadily, the Dow Jones index climbed steadily upward, wages rose, and the unemployment and poverty rates hit record lows, according to the BBC, which certainly cannot be called a Trump fan.
These are simple facts, and these are things that truly matter to most Americans. These are among the reasons 48 percent of the country voted for the most unpresidential-acting president ever to occupy the White House.
The mainstream media’s inability to accept this is arguably the biggest reasons its credibility has crumbled. It has become as delusional as Trump.
BJ Campbell, a numbers-oriented engineer who started writing as a citizen journalist at a website called Handwaving Freakoutery, believes this was to be expected; and that it’s really largely about market forces in the Age of the Internet.
For a time, he linked up with an internet-only news site called Medium that is trying to become part of the new mainstream. He has now left that website.
“I suspect the article Medium chose to feature of mine, “The Surprisingly Solid Mathematical Case of the Tin Foil Hat Gun Prepper,” may have been the last non-lefty thing Medium ever put on their front page,” he wrote recently. “Everything they featured since, for several years, came from the rabbit hole we now call ‘Woke.’
“But if you’re not Woke, or are slowly realigning yourself to the group of “actively anti-wokes” along the new emergent political axis, why would you pay for a subscription to Medium? You wouldn’t. The traffic benefits of being on Medium slowly eroded for my publication because the echo chamber reading Medium tightened.
“And that’s almost assuredly what actually happened with Glen Greenwald at The Intercept. Greenwald’s editors at The Intercept censored one of his articles critical of Joe Biden. Greenwald railed against this censorship claiming ideological bias. And that ideological bias was probably a true thing, I don’t know. But the mechanics of modern media organizations, where they play to a tight bubble because tight bubbles get the most clicks, basically force editors to do this. From a monetary perspective, the editors were doing the right thing.”
One can only hope Campbell is wrong in his analysis because the future is not pretty if he is right. The often messy American democracy was created by a gang of flawed men, some of whom might today be called religious fanatics, who understood tolerance, even when it was difficult, was the glue that would hold together a free society and allow people to govern themselves rather than be governed by overseers.
Tolerance doesn’t mean you have to love your neighbor. It doesn’t even mean you have to like your neighbor. It simply means you have to find a way to live with your neighbor.
That was and is the essence of the mainstream. It’s what held the stream together.
Now it is fracturing into two streams – the woke and the anti-woke – each trying to dictate to the other how to behave.
Old-fashioned journalism could play a role in making the situation better or worse. The first step would involve breaking out of those bubbles, but as Usher and Ng observed, it is easier and more comfortable to follow the pack wherein “large groups of reporters cluster around a news site, engage in copycat reporting by using and sharing news information, and lazily refrain from confirming the data through independent sources.”
And if readers should happen to question this behavior, well, the response of many journalist is that it’s only because readers are stupid.
This attitude does not bode well for journalism. But worse, it does not bode well for the country.