“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” — Abraham Lincoln
You’d think—or perhaps a better word would be “hope”—that executives in charge of the nation’s major media outlets would look over the latest surveys about the public’s lack of confidence in their job performance and then engage in some deep soul-searching about how to improve that poor evaluation.
Unfortunately, that’s not a very likely outcome. If those executives were worried about how their customers perceived their product, they would have changed their policies and practices long ago.
Instead, in the current political campaign, they seem to have doubled down on what many observers, including what now appears to be a majority of the American people, see as their one-sidedness and increasingly open bias.
What’s at issue is a Gallup poll released Sept. 21 saying not only that fewer Americans say they are paying close attention to political news this year, but that fully 60 percent of the respondents say that they have either “not very much confidence” or “none at all” in the ability of the major news media—newspapers, TV and radio—to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.”
Only a miniscule 8 percent say they have ” a great deal of confidence” in the media to be accurate and unbiased.
Most of those on the political right would react to that in the manner favored by Homer Simpson: “D’oh!”
Conservatives, after all, have been saying all this for years, and there’s more than a little satisfaction in seeing the wider public swinging over to their view of the media’s untrustworthiness both in general matters and specifically on matters of politics and the so-called “social issues.”
Delve a bit deeper into the poll results, and you find that, as Gallup says, the distrust rating “reflects the continuation of a pattern in which negativity increases every election year compared with the year prior. The current gap between negative and positive views—20 percentage points—is by far the highest Gallup has recorded since it began regularly asking the question in the 1990s.”
The pollster continues, “Trust in the media was much higher, and more positive than negative, in the years prior to 2004—as high as 72 percent when Gallup asked this question three times in the 1970s.”
Of course, the levels of trust vary according to political outlook: while 58 percent of Democrats report having a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the media, only 28 percent of Republicans offer those responses.
And independents are barely more trusting, with only 31 percent taking the media’s side.
As a general observation, it’s my belief—rooted in decades of substantive evidence—that the numbers have swung so much for some rather obvious reasons.
First, let’s posit that the United States remains, as so many have said, a primarily “center-right” nation. When asked if they are conservatives or liberals, Americans generally have split 35-40 percent “conservative” as against 15-20 percent “liberal.”
And, at least until recently, the major media could fairly be described as “center-left.” That meant that the rightmost side of the media overlapped with the leftmost side of the majority of Americans, so there was a commonality of outlook in that market segment that preserved the media’s credibility in the public’s eyes.
But that has shifted dramatically, with the media becoming more openly left-wing in each succeeding election over many decades.
As another piece of evidence, consider that two ombudsmen for the New York Times have now concluded in their parting columns that the Times, the guiding star for the nation’s news media, is making less and less a secret of its preconceptions about what the news really is.
Back in 2004, then-ombudsman Daniel Okrent asked in his last column, “Is the New York Times a liberal paper?” He answered, perhaps surprisingly to some of his audience, “Of course it is … if you are among the groups the Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans)… then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world … readers with a different worldview will find the Times an alien beast.”
Now, just-departed ombudsman Arthur S. Brisbane has seconded the motion. Writing in late August of this year, he does defend the paper’s coverage of political campaigns—a bit of a stretch if you were, say, John McCain in 2008 and found a baseless speculation about an alleged “affair” spread across the front page.
But, as Brisbane also noted, “Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism—for lack of a better term—that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of the Times. As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in the Times, over-loved and under-managed, more like causes than news subjects.”
Bleeds through, indeed.
One would hope news media executives would be motivated to explore ways to improve their public image, particularly with audiences for Big Three network news programs at record lows and newspaper advertising hitting levels that would make anorexics look roly-poly.
But that hope would not be well-founded. As Walter Russell Meade, whose Via Meadia blog appears on the website of The American Interest magazine, noted on Sept. 23, in the pre-cable, pre-Internet era, the major networks and newspapers exemplified a “progressive consensus” that marginalized dissenting voices. (Radio was then nonexistent as a news and commentary source, except for the left-wing National Public Radio on FM, until the medium was transformed two decades ago by the impact of Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives on what was before then the wasteland of the AM band.)
But that has changed, and, Meade points out, with the current wide variety of media voices where once there was virtual (if lock-step) consensus, the issue today is as much about power (economic, social and political) as it is about audience share or advertising revenue.
Meade says, “The elite press was once the custodian of a cultural consensus about the way America should work. There was always disagreement, and many people were angry about the role of the press, but in the blue (mainstream) model’s heyday those dissenting voices were confined to the margins both by the structure of the American media system and by the strong social consensus in favor of the blue status quo.
“These days,” he continues, “the elite press is less custodian of a consensus than embattled defender of a controversial vision. Opposing voices are louder and more effective, and the underlying assumptions of the elite’s worldview are more openly and widely contested.”
In sum, he says, “The national elite press does not, on the whole, welcome (its) decline … and, like academics and others whose interests, self-image and power in the world are adversely affected by the reshaping of American society, it naturally and almost inevitably interprets many of the changes taking place through the conceptual model of the Grim Slide from the time of Ronald Reagan to the present day.
“The changes in American society look like the systemic erosion of the social achievements and protections of the progressive era, and the economic misfortunes, falling wages and declining job security of many old media journalists reinforce their dark forebodings about what the transformations mean.”
So where conservatives fight for the chance to see the sun rise on a new era of individual empowerment and economic growth, the left-of-center members of the news media, stuck decades in the past, mourn their decline and fight as hard as they can—but not to seek a wider, more diverse audience, which would seem to be their logical course.
Instead, they cling to their fading progressive dreams of a perfect society guided by the best and the brightest.
Who, by definition, are people just like them.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.