The oft-disparaged “mainstream media” (shortened to MSM) isn’t a new boogeyman in the US – Sarah Palin was peddling her own version of “truth” over the “lamestream media” back in 2009. And while 2009 may not be in the far-flung past, American attitudes towards big news groups have gone through a considerable shift in the decade since. According to Gallup, only 32% of Americans believe mass media is at least partially trustworthy. In 2008, that number was only 8% higher and the last time a majority of Americans supported the MSM was in 2003 during the Bush administration. Now something to note is that the linked poll is from September of 2016. If you weren’t living off the grid in the Yukon territory, you may have been plugged into the vitriol surrounding media as part of the 2016 presidential elections. Specifically from the Trump camp.
Trump’s attacks on the fourth estate resonated strongly with his supporters. As a disclaimer: I really don’t feel qualified to opine on why Middle America felt betrayed by the media. I’m sure there was some element of groupthink where any source that contradicted a pre-existing or developing worldview was branded as counterrevolutionary – but that’s not a theory I’m interested in filling out because there are plenty of pundits that have already beaten me to the punch. Trump’s tactic, and it should be considered a tactic, of demonizing the MSM had some sort of effect and now he’s the President. But Trump wasn’t some profound architect who was able to remake a centuries-old institution into an enemy of the American people; American trust in the media had been eroding well before Trump’s campaign run. The President-to-be wasn’t the cause of the mistrust, but he was absolutely willing to exploit it.
I think a good question to ask is “Why?” Asking why serves as a first step in rebuilding the less-than-admirable reputation of journalism in 2018. So why do Americans distrust mass media? What caused it?
A lazy answer is: George W. Bush. Before the Bush administration, attitudes towards mass media weren’t stellar but they weren’t in the death spiral we’re seeing today. Bush’s international policies were polarizing, even among members of his own party. The media reported on these issues and saw a rapid increase in citizen partisanship over the broadcasts. It had become more simple to criticize the source of the information rather than the actual content being reported. That’s the lazy answer.
A better answer is: George W. Bush and the media. Bush wasn’t a great president. Hell, he wasn’t even a good one. His administration has set a tone for the United States going into the 21st century that is difficult to come to terms with as a reasonable American. Point is that there’s plenty of blame to put at Bush’s feet but the increase of media suspicion by American citizens isn’t wholly his burden to bear. The news industry had spent decades building itself as a pillar of the American information cycle and seemed to willfully decide to throw away that reputation in the span of a few years.
The first shots came with The Washington Times in the late 90s. The Times leaked top secret information that tipped bin Laden off to how the US government was tracking him. Though it was honest reporting, it breached (and ended) a longstanding understanding between the press and the US government that stated the press would sit on information that would help the enemy unless the need of the public to know the information far outweighed the price for revealing the enemy.
Though the Washington Times set an adversarial tone between themselves and the government, it was the New York Times that brought journalistic integrity under scrutiny from the public starting with Jayson Blair‘s plagiarism and outright fabrication during the coverage of the Beltway Sniper. It took six months before the New York Times figured out that he had been sitting at home piecing together quotes from other publications to write articles before they canned him. This was a major breach of trust for American media consumers; the Times was practically revered for its coverage. The article released in March of 2003, Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception, by the same paper might have soothed concerns if the controversy with Rick Bragg’s freelancers didn’t take place a week later. The latter ‘issue’ isn’t something that would be considered a scandal today, but so close to Blair’s violations of basic journalistic integrity it had caused a major shakeup. Of course, NYT would go on to have other issues – the fake McCain affair story run during his 2008 campaign might have been considered an actual accident if the allegations weren’t so strong and the sources so anonymous.
Not to be outdone by its media peers, the LA Times played politics with the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election by sitting on a story involving the testimony of several women saying Schwarzenegger, one of the Republican candidates, had made inappropriate sexual advances. The LA Times waited until the week running up to the election in order to do the most damage to Schwarzenegger’s campaign. Schwarzenegger would go on to win the election and govern California for two terms.
USA Today’s Jack Kelley, the Bush admin’s journalist payoff scandal, NBC’s Brian Williams, and even the famous Dan Rather contributed to the continued degradation of public trust in what was once an esteemed profession.
Finally, as if my point wasn’t already clear and established, there was Fox News. One could fill a laundry list of ways Fox News discredited their industry, but it would be a waste of keystrokes; it’s well-documented and well-known.
I started writing this article with the intent to explore why trust in these institutions was at an all time low and I believe I’ve achieved that. In addition to the abundance of online news media, which leeches off the industry’s nearly-broken credibility, a combination of deliberate misinformation, negative incentives for journalists, and genuine mistakes on the part of the media contributed to a general feeling of viewer skepticism. Skepticism that has led to more frequent emotional, in place of evidence-based, political decision engineering, which in turn has generated the present political situation.