The media is its own worst enemy
by Peter Rough
Three years ago, Donald Trump burst onto the political scene offering a mix of Republican orthodoxy and populist fire. While his primary opponents issued aspirational calls for freedom, Trump sounded themes like “fair trade” and “the Wall”—positions that motivated working-class voters as much as they alienated urbane elites. In the general election, Trump doubled-down on this posture, embracing American nationalism as the corrective to globalization’s ills, which he blamed on the governing class. In the end, Trump’s upset victory proved so jarring not because it was surprising but because it rested on a basic rejection of the establishment itself.
Trump’s win posed the governing class with a choice. They could respond with introspection, examining why Americans had chosen an explicitly anti-establishment message. Or they could take the bait and fight a cantankerous president who regularly derided them as the “Swamp.” For the past two years, the establishment has overwhelmingly chosen the latter path—a decision that has mostly boomeranged. Nowhere is this truer than with the mainstream media.
To be sure, Trump has not made it easy for the press to rise above the fray. Republicans have long bemoaned unfair media coverage—who can forget, after all, how glowing profiles of John McCain transformed into nasty denunciations of the Arizona Senator simply because Barack Obama (2008) had replaced George W. Bush (2000) as his opponent. Still, no Republican of stature has openly savaged the media quite like Donald Trump, who has labeled peddlers of “fake news” the “enemy of the American people.”
And so, the press has swung into action. In August, the Boston Globe rallied over 300 newspapers to publish a rebuttal of President Trump’s attacks on the media. Moreover, an entire industry of fact-checkers has proliferated across platforms, posting corrections aimed at the president. For the most part, this approach has backfired. The seeming contradiction of “coordinated journalism” only reinforces the impression of mainstream media bias, just as the fact-checking genre has blurred the line between opinion journalism and hard news. Worst of all, by anointing itself a democratic heroine battling Trumpian recklessness, the press has made itself the story. In the process, it has imperiled its reputation as a neutral arbiter.
The press has made itself the story. In the process, it has imperiled its reputation as a neutral arbiter.
The media’s declining credibility is closely related to its uniformity. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has written, “political experts aren’t a very diverse group and tend to place a lot of faith in the opinions of other experts and other members of the political establishment.” Even before Trump entered the scene, only 7 percent of journalists self-identified as Republicans. The impact of such ideological uniformity on reporting is subtle but consequential. As NBC’s Chuck Todd put it recently in the Atlantic, “A New York–based reporter may approach reporting on guns, or on evangelical Christianity, differently than a reporter in Pensacola, Florida.” From selection bias to unquestioned assumptions, too much of today’s mainstream press coverage lacks intellectual diversity. As a result, especially Republican trust in the media has declined.
Too much of today’s mainstream press coverage lacks intellectual diversity.
The information revolution has only accelerated this trend. Decades ago, three graying white males sitting atop New York City skyscrapers set the media frame for the entire country through the network’s nightly news broadcasts. That era is long past. The information revolution democratized the American media, breaking up the network monopoly by giving rise to a bevy of alternative outlets and voices. Now, however, a select few tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have established a hold over our means of communication. This is deeply worrying. After all, Silicon Valley may be a marvel of technological progress, but it is also a shallow and ignorant ecosystem. If the establishment media can be clubby, the tech industry is outright cultish. Its disdain for conservatism runs especially deep. The prospect of a small coterie of tech executives and engineers, hostile toward the rich mosaic of American life, controlling key media chokepoints is giving many conservatives pause. From the mainstream media to our tech masters, our major institutions should strive to be more representative of the democracy they serve. The result would be better reporting and increased trust. In the era of Trump, it’s far better to leave the resistance to the politicians.
Peter Rough is a fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. He writes and comments on U.S. foreign policy toward Europe and the Middle East.