WASHINGTON – Of all the losers in this season of discontent, the mainstream media top the list. I don’t say this lightly and sincerely fear that loss of faith in journalism ultimately will cause more harm to the nation than any outside enemy could hope to.
Only 18 percent of Americans trust national news and just 22 percent trust local news, according to the Pew Research Center. That said, three-fourths of Americans think news organizations keep political leaders in line, though about the same percentage think the news media are biased.
Not surprisingly, Republicans more than Democrats think this way. It hasn’t helped that Republican politicos and conservative cable and radio outlets have convinced their constituents that the media are the enemy. It seems we’ve forgotten that the purpose of a newspaper, as Chicago Evening Post journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne put it in an 1893 column, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Could there be a better reason to give Donald J. Trump a rough ride?
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Nevertheless, distrust of legitimate journalism is no joking matter. What happens to democracy when an uninformed, misinformed, or dis-informed populace tries to make sound decisions? The simple and terrible answer is, democracy fails.
We’ve reached this critical juncture thanks largely to the digital revolution. Until relatively recently, most people relied on a limited number of trusted news sources, which provided a basis for what we referred to as “common knowledge.” The country more or less also shared a set of common values.
Today, of course, we have thousands of news sources – or millions if you count social media. Everyone can pick his or her own outlet for consumption as well as a venue for invention. Personal journalists – that is, anyone with a smartphone to photograph or video in real time – have created virtual newsrooms of one that can communicate with countless others through tweets, retweets and created buzz on fact or fiction.
If you’re suddenly put in mind of insects, you’re not far off. Deafened by the dizzying din, it’s hard to hear the angels sing.
To those who complain that Trump received more negative coverage than Hillary Clinton did, I would merely point out that correctly quoting the man was inherently negative. He said a lot of awful stuff and offered little of substance to offset the headlines. Moreover, the media have covered every follicle of Hillary Clinton’s scalp for 25 to 30 years. Her flaws and failures are well known to anyone who’s been half-awake, while Trump was essentially new on the political stage.
Trump’s own criticism of the press was as trumped up as many of his other campaign slogans, created to rile the crowd and deflect attention from, among other things, the fact that his manipulation of the media was the engine that propelled him to the top of the heap. But he knew that media bashing was popular among his base and gave them what they wanted.
Also contributing to the growing distrust is the perceived blurring of news and opinion, which can be a legitimate beef. Advocacy journalism, in this opinion writer’s view, belongs on the editorial and op-ed pages, though many news organizations subscribe to the notion that advancing a social cause or, perhaps, derailing an unfit candidate, justifies aggressive, Page 1 coverage. Objectivity be damned.
Thus, one shouldn’t wonder why so many have lost faith. It is worth noting, however, that when a mainstream reporter or editor is found to be deliberately dishonest, he or she is quickly dispatched to the outer darkness. The same can’t be said of the alternative news world or of social media. On Facebook, “fake” news creator Paul Horner recently marveled that his viral, made-up stories helped get Trump elected.
Fortunately, only 4 percent of Americans trust social media “a lot” as a news source, and 30 percent trust it “some,” according to Pew. But sometimes it’s hard to tell fake from true, or advocacy from propaganda, and therein lies perhaps the greatest challenge of our time.
What’s clear is that news consumers must be extra vigilant in selecting news sources, while also being self-critical about those choices. The mainstream media need to work harder at presenting balanced reporting to rebuild trust. And education programs aimed at teaching students how to evaluate news, such as those created by The News Literacy Project, need greater public support and an accelerated timeline.
Words to this effect from our next president wouldn’t hurt. Trump would see headlines change quickly in his favor, the world would rejoice, and the Trump brand would be golden forever. Come on, do it.