Big Media is Distrusted. So What?

Given the clickbaity title, I’ll remind you that when it comes to political journalism — especially since Donald Trump’s election — I’m more pessimistic than The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, who spends much of her time giving the media grief.

She has plenty of advice for how journalists could do their job better and often advocates that they should listen more to people who voted differently than their newsrooms.  OTOH, I have seen the establishment media try putting people on “the conservative beat” enough times to have given up much hope that works.  Until Big Media hires enough people with non-Left viewpoints as both reporters and editors to constantly challenge newsroom groupthink, the basic problems will persist.

So why the clickbaity title?  Mostly to distinguish between two types of media analysis or criticism.

Let’s call the first, more common type academic or institutional.  These pieces examine whether a story is accurate or well-supported, whether columnists are contradicting themselves, whether journalism — or America — would function better if the media adopted certain practices, and so on.

Another type of media analysis is more practical or political.  Presuming — as conservatives (and most voters) have concluded — that Big Media has been biased against Trump (as it generally is against Republicans year after year), what does that mean as a matter of politics?

The “So what?” question has different answers, depending on the analysis applied.

It’s one thing to point out — as I have to at least one establishment journalist —  that according to Gallup, only 32% of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, which should concern journalists in the academic or institutional sense.   Gallup even records numbers as low as 20-21% for those who have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in TV news and newspapers.

These are generally conservatives’ go-to stats on trust in Big Media, but the result depends on the pollster and the questions asked.  The American Press Institute reported that 58% have some confidence in the press as an institution.  Pew reported that 76% of adults have at least some trust in national news organizations, with an even higher number for local news.  People presuming the public has simply tuned out the media as untrustworthy should consider Gallup arguably is presenting the worst-case scenario for the media.

Moreover, the worst-case numbers from Gallup also show that trust in TV and newspapers has been in the low-to-mid-20s for almost a decade.  The steeper decline in trust among GOPers in this cycle does not much affect what has been a long-running trend of declining trust in the media.

Numbers like these matter primarily in the institutional sense.  They matter less directly in a political sense, insofar as you might use them to rate the job approval of some other collective body, like Congress.  From that perspective, there may be an analogy to the “I hate Congress, but like my Member of Congress” dynamic.

Indeed, liberals tend to trust establishment and more overtly liberal news sources, while generally distrusting conservative sources.  And vice versa.  People of “mixed” ideology tend to trust the liberal/establishment sources, though (unlike liberals) they also tend to trust Fox News.  And everyone tends to trust the Wall Street Journal (though one might argue its news coverage historically skews more to the left than its editorials might suggest).

When judging political fights between Pres. Obama and the GOP Congress, Big Media often liked to cite polls showing that people favored Obama, while not addressing the fact that Obama: (a) was elected nationally, while legislators are not; (b) Obama needed to be popular nationally, while legislators need only appeal to their constituents; and (c) the machinery of government and the media frames the President, not Congress, as the focus of political stories daily.

Similarly, when assessing the media as a political actor, it may be useful to remember that the media does not have the same demands as a president or a legislator, ratings are not the same as popularity, and criticism of the media is usually not as high-profile to the average viewer as media criticism of politicians.

In this political moment, however, Pres. Trump currently is in a very high-profile, heated battle with the media.  So how’s he doing?

In early February, Quinnipiac found that 57% of voters were at least somewhat concerned that Trump will try to limit the freedom of the press, while 42% are not so concerned.

A more recent Fox News poll found, on a 45-42% split (within the margin of error), more voters trust the Trump administration to “tell the public the truth” than the White House press corps.  The same poll found 55% percent say it’s better for the country if the media covers the president aggressively, while 38% say it would be better if reporters gave the president the benefit of the doubt.

The Fox poll also found that 71% think Trump should be more careful when he speaks, while only 28% like that he speaks his mind.

Keep in mind that the internal numbers on these questions generally have the partisan and ideological splits that you might expect.  I will say that the Fox numbers are better for Trump among independents than the toplines suggest, favoring Trump over the media by a 2-1 margin and split on whether the media should be aggressive.

OTOH, the internals also reflect the split between college-educated whites and whites without a degree that we saw in the election cycle and may be relevant to GOP officeholders who won with a different electoral map than Trump.

If you think the media coverage of Trump has been as bad as I do — and as unlikely to change in its fundamental bias, even if the media calms down somewhat — Trump basically matching the media for trustworthiness, the Trump numbers resting where you would expect for a base of GOP support (not much beyond that), and the lopsided majority who think Trump should speak more carefully should be concerning to Trump supporters.

The Trump White House seems to want Big Media to stand in as the opposition party (or make that status overt, if you will).  Fair enough.  But if Big Media even comes close to cleaning up its act, it may offer more formidable opposition than Hillary Clinton.

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