The Media’s Trump Derangement Syndrome

James Boswell wrote that Samuel Johnson said, “[p]atriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” When mainstream media (MSM) denizens wrap themselves in the First Amendment, one wonders if Johnson’s assertion needs to be broadened.

No sooner had Trump won the 2016 election than some MSM types began claiming his criticisms of the media threatened First Amendment freedoms, a drumbeat that continues.

Barely a week goes by without more evidence of the war between the MSM and Trump. Watch, for example, Trump’s comments at CPAC’s 2017 conference, in which he stated that “fake news” is “the enemy-of-the-people,” and then contrast that with how the MSM reported that facet of his speech. In MSM reports, “fake news” became “the media.” Another recent example of MSM hyperventilation about Trump is how the replacement of assistant U.S. attorneys is being treated -- as a scandal -- compared to the way the same action by the Clinton and Obama administrations was covered.

To understand what’s going on between Trump, the MSM, and the American public, we must look at how the MSM and its audience have changed over the years. First, let’s focus on the MSM.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the prevailing pattern of press coverage of politics was through the lens of partisanship. The Richmond (VA) Junto, which flourished in the early 19th century, and facilitated the elections of Thomas Jefferson (1800, 1804), James Madison (1808, 1812), and James Monroe (1816, 1820), sponsored -- under Jefferson -- its own newspaper: Philip Freneau’s Gazette of the United States. Somewhat earlier (1791), while George Washington was president, John Fenno’s National Gazette was established in Philadelphia, and was generally friendly to the Federalist Party. The two papers seldom agreed on how to report political news. Throughout the 19th century, there were Republican news outlets and Democrat ones; one could still find such papers in the early 20th century. Frank Luther Mott’s American Journalism (1941), describes this style of news reportage.

During the first half of the 20th century, the norm of objectivity shaped how most print, and later electronic, reporters tried to cover the news. “Just the facts” is a phrase associated with Jack Webb’s "Dragnet," but the same principle underpinned the way most journalists believed how they should cover the news.

To get a sense of what happened after the objectivity norm receded, read two books by former reporter Bernard Goldberg, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (2001), and Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite (2004).

Changing fashions in how the MSM have covered the news have been accompanied by changes in American journalists, especially in their politics. Today, most in the MSM lean decisively to the left.

In 2014, Mollie Hemingway, for example, presented evidence on American journalists’ turn to the left since the early 1970s, by juxtaposing findings on the American public from a Gallup poll in 2014 with data on American journalists compiled the year before by Indiana University journalism professors David H. Weaver and Lars Willnat. In 2014, according to Gallup, 43% of the American public called themselves Democrats or independents who lean Democrat, while 41% said they were Republicans or independents who lean to the GOP. One-sixth (16%) remained in the Independent category. By contrast, in 2013, 28.1% of journalists identified with the Democrat Party, 7.1% admitted they were Republicans, 50.2% said they were Independents, and 14.6% identified with some other party. Compare the 2013 data on journalists with the results of a 1971 poll, which found that 35.5% said they were Democrats, 25.7% identified with the GOP, 32.5% claimed to be Independents, and 6.3% identified with another party. In other words, in 42 years, the percentage of American journalists identifying with the Democrats sagged 7.4 percentage points, the percentage admitting to GOP inclinations dropped 18.6 points, while the percentage claiming to be Independents surged 17.7 points, and the percentage identifying with some other party increased 8.3 points. (This says nothing about how the MSM vote, which is almost always overwhelmingly for Democrats.)

Journalists’ left-wing proclivities might not be so bad if the norm of objectivity still shaped the way they report the news. Sadly, many journalists, especially the younger ones, believe that objective journalism “is a myth.” Goldberg’s books provide insights into this style of reporting. To see how MSM bias influenced coverage of Barack Obama, read Goldberg’s A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (and Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media (2009). I have already mentioned the bitter struggle between Trump and the MSM.

We must also look at how the media’s audience’s habits and opinions have changed.

The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press’s most recent report of Americans’ news habits was The Modern News Consumer (2016).

That report found that 57% of Americans said they often got their news from TV, including cable telecasts, local outlets, and the networks’ nightly programs, 38% said they often turned to social media (websites, apps, etc.), 25% said radio, and 20% reported reading print newspapers.

Those figures, however, masked an age-related disparity in news consumption. Among Americans aged 18-29, for example, only about a quarter said they often got their news from TV, but 50% often went online. Just about one-fifth of the young turned to either radio or newspapers. Among Americans over 50, on the other hand, over 70% often relied on TV, roughly a quarter turned to online sources, and about a third relied on either newspapers or radio.

More important are changes in Americans’ confidence in news outlets. The Gallup Poll has asked the same question tapping confidence in news outlets on several occasions. In early May 1973, for example, 39% of the public had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers, compared to 18% who expressed “very little” or “none.” By early June 2016, on the other hand, only 20% of the public had either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in newspapers, while 36% had either very little or none. Early May 1973 found that 46% of the public had either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in TV news, compared with 18% who had either very little or none. By early June 2016, only 21% of the public said they had either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in TV news, compared with 40% who said they had either very little or none. In short, Americans have lost confidence in the two major sources of political news.

Perhaps it’s because large portions of the public perceive the media as biased to the left. Although leftists, such as Eric Alterman, try to deny the MSM’s liberal bias, the academic Tim Groseclose’s Left Turn not only documents the MSM’s left-wing bias, but how that bias distorts American public opinion.

The MSM have lost connection with sizable portions of the American public and have declared war on the new Trump administration. The MSM will not voluntarily change course. The time has come for more Americans to tune them out. 

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