I really wanted to buy what Rachel Maddow was furiously selling Tuesday night: a “bombshell” exclusive report on President Trump’s leaked tax filings. Her claim in the top half of the show, that the president’s 2005 filings could prove gross misconduct, was cause for excitement for anyone interested in government transparency and accountability, particularly in the age of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and meaning-altering quotation marks. After months of controversy surrounding the Trump administration, it seemed the scandals surrounding his presidency were finally coming to a head. But for all the hype Maddow’s mid-evening tweet generated (85,000 retweets and 159,000 favorites in less than 24 hours), there was no substance to her report. Yet again, the mainstream media played directly into President Trump’s hands.
Trump owes his victory last November to an increased level of turnout among citizens who had not voted in previous elections. According to a New York Times analysis, counties Trump carried by more than 70% experienced a 2.9% surge in turnout, while their Democratic equivalents saw a drop of 1.7%. The same article states that “for every one voter nationwide who reported having voted for [former president Barack] Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, at least five people voted for Trump after not having voted four years ago.” So, what was it that dispersed the working-class bastions of political indolence and sent their constituents to the polls in droves?
It is easy to point to “the pain of the white working class,” the flaws of the electoral college, or racial blowback in the aftermath of Obama’s historic eight-year tenure, and to do so would be correct, in a limited sense. I would argue, however, that the strongest and most fundamental motivator for many Trump supporters was the disdain he bred in them for mainstream society, and especially for the media.
Since the start of his campaign, Trump has demonized the press and his opponents as the leaders of an exclusive and harmful political agenda. After he was harshly criticized for making inappropriate comments and introducing a vague and infeasible policy platform, Trump labeled the media “dishonest” and “corrupt,” words he had also used to describe his general election rival, “Crooked” Hillary Clinton. Trump maintains that the press is an “enemy of the American people” that propagates falsehoods and unfairly denigrates his character. Overall, he has attempted to destroy the foundation of trust that underlies the media’s influence on the masses.
Surely, Trump’s methods of communication have contributed to his success. Twitter, his preferred means of interaction with the world, is designed to quickly publish thoughts and sound bites to the world. With a limit of 160 characters, tweets leave no space for citation or clarification. This model benefits Trump, who has a documented propensity for making unfounded or unverifiable claims, more than it does Clinton and other politicians who traffic in fact rather than fiction. By utilizing a medium on which detail is not merely unnecessary but entirely impossible, Trump effectively eliminates the advantage his rivals hold over him: that the facts support their positions more than his.
The results of Trump’s aggressive anti-media campaign have been pronounced. Americans are more mistrustful of the press now than in any period of the modern polling age, according to Gallup. Trump’s effect on his supporters is clear—after 32% of Republicans said they had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in the news media in 2015, only 14% did so in 2016. Accordingly, the national level of trust in the media is down from 40% to 32%. This data shows that Trump’s attempts to minimize the platforms of his detractors in the press have largely succeeded. After all, people generally react more strongly to negative emotions than to positive ones, due to a phenomenon called negativity bias. It is easier to break down a people’s perception of an institution than it is to build it up.
In the meantime, media organizations with little or no credibility have experienced spikes in readership and secured a greater influence over domestic affairs. This week, for example, the president publicly endorsed unsubstantiated claims by Fox commentator Andrew Napolitano that Obama colluded with Great Britain—our closest ally for nearly a century—to covertly monitor his campaign. President Trump has cited Infowars, Alex Jones’ conspiracy-peddling website, in support of numerous outlandish claims. Over the last few months, he has even meddled with the media’s ability to access and cover his administration by elevating demonstrably unreliable groups like Breitbart, the Gateway Pundit, the Daily Caller, and the Daily Signal to the White House press corps after having revoked the credentials of reputable publications like the Washington Post and Politico on the campaign trail. In many ways, Trump has toppled the media hierarchy that existed for decades and replaced it with a combustible and confusing system of disinformation.
The situation is exacerbated by the increased role the media play in our political lives at present. Whether we like it or not, the press has become the only vehicle by which politicians convey their messages to the masses; gone are the days when town halls, public speeches, and letter-writing campaigns determined the flow of American politics. Now, more than ever, the news media effectively control what we view and how we consider it, and as Americans’ trust in the fairness and accuracy of the press erodes, our republic deteriorates into anger and chaos.
Certainly, stories like Maddow’s constitute well-intentioned attempts to expose malfeasance that is evident to anyone who pays careful attention. Yet, as became clear in the aftermath of Tuesday’s report, even relevant news that is accompanied by solid commentary can contribute to the decline of institutional trust if not produced and addressed properly. Inadequate reporting discourages audiences who crave believable (if not truthful) stories from trusting the media and makes unimpeachable stories less impactful.
That’s why it is imperative that reporters meet higher standards of journalistic integrity. The media must remain steadfastly accurate and accountable, even when the subjects of their coverage are not. They must report the facts when they claim to do so; they must not exaggerate or lie.
Most importantly, the media need to refine their coverage of politics, particularly in reference to the president and the movement he has launched. Throwing explosive sound bites and scraps of evidence of wrongdoing that purport to implicate the current administration and hoping something will stick is journalistically irresponsible and, more importantly, dangerous for our country. We must demand higher standards of reporting if we are to ever restore trust and civility to American society.