At this year’s White House Correspondents Association dinner, legendary reporter Bob Woodward told his fellow journalists that they “need to face the reality that polling numbers show that most Americans disapprove of and distrust the media. This is no time for self-satisfaction or smugness.”
He’s right, of course. Polls show that roughly 30% of the country trusts the information they’re getting from the national political media. To illustrate how scary that number is, President Trump’s trustworthiness actually ranks higher.
This is not a good thing for a free society. One of the primary roles of the press is to hold powerful figures (especially elected representatives) accountable. When politicians are deemed to be more honest than their watchdogs, democracy suffers.
The media has undoubtedly brought a lot of the problem on itself. The profession has squandered the good will of the American public, and has for decades undermined its own credibility through a culture of accepted bias (conscious and unconscious) that has only grown more blatant over time.
Some journalists (like Woodward) recognize the issue, and understand how direly important it is to fix the problem. That’s more easily said than done. Public cynicism, when it comes to the media, is at an all-time high, and it’s going to take a lot of work to win over the hearts and minds of Americans.
Here are a few suggestions for beginning that process:
Speaking before Woodward at the correspondents’ dinner was his famous Washington Post colleague, Carl Bernstein. In his speech, Bernstein said, “Our job is to put the best obtainable version of the truth out there. Period.”
I think most journalists, if asked if they agree with Bernstein’s statement, would answer ‘Yes.’ After all, even the most biased of news figures believe in the nobility of their profession, and that they have a responsibility to the public to speak truth to power.
But tellingly, Bernstein followed up that sentence with this qualifier: “Especially now.”
The implication, of course, was that with Donald Trump (a man famous for his casual dishonesty) now in the White House, it’s more important than it used to be to hold our president accountable for his words and actions. Sadly, most journalists would probably agree with Bernstein on that as well.
Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times sure seemed to share such a sentiment back in January, when he wrote a piece that hailed the tenacity of journalists who were aggressively challenging the Trump administration on multiple unsubstantiated claims.
“Serious, solid journalism is coming back into fashion,” McManus wrote.
Such a declaration begs an obvious question: Where had serious, solid journalism been over the previous eight years?
The reality is that the press was largely incurious (and downright accommodating) when it came to the dishonesty put forth by the Obama administration, whether it was on Benghazi, the rise of ISIS, Obamacare, the Iran Deal, etc. The truth was just as important then as it is now, and when journalists suggest otherwise, they’re eroding their integrity.
In a recent piece for Politico, Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty shared their research findings (from labor statistic, voting patterns, and Census data) that people who work in the national news profession are concentrated heavily along the East and West coasts of the United States, which—politically—lean liberal and Democratic.
Shafer writes, “If you’re a working journalist, odds aren’t just that you work in a pro-Clinton county—odds are that you reside in one of the nation’s most pro-Clinton counties.”
Taking into account where most of the major news organizations are based, this probably wouldn’t surprise many people. But does it matter? Yes, it does.
When you live among primarily like-minded people with similar life experiences, it’s very easy to overlook the culture and priorities of different regions within this large, diverse country of ours. What’s important to someone who’s making $40 thousand a year on a farm in rural Nebraska likely isn’t all that important to someone who’s living in Manhattan, earning well over a $100 thousand as a journalist.
So when people from red states complain that the national media doesn’t get them, and doesn’t focus on stories important to them, they’re standing on pretty solid ground. To them, it feels like the media is trying to force-feed them ideological sensibilities that they just don’t subscribe to. And because they don’t buy into those sensibilities, they believe that the media holds them in contempt. And in many cases, it’s true.
Former CBS News correspondent and current Fox News media analyst, Bernard Goldberg, identified this problem years ago in his best-selling book, Arrogance. More importantly, he provides some solutions.
Goldberg suggests that the major news organizations consider relocating their headquarters to cities in Middle America (like Tupelo and Oklahoma City). While that stands about as much chance of happening as Anthony Weiner receiving an award from Common Sense Media, there’s another answer: regional hiring.
In his book, Goldberg praises the news industry for making a conscious attempt over the decades to create a more ethnically diverse newsroom (in regard to race, gender, and sexuality). But he doesn’t think they’ve gone far enough, adding the following:
“But millions of us are eager to see another kind of diversity, one that is also important and meaningful. It’s past time that we moved from a newsroom that simply looks like America to one that thinks more like America—a newsroom that better reflects America in its highly varied beliefs and values and passions.”
He adds, “News executives need to make a serious effort to go after the kinds of blue-collar kids that currently you almost never find in most American newsrooms… They also need to find some kids who are smart and have a ton of enthusiasm but who didn’t go to college at all. They need to find young men and women who served in the military. All of these people have important perspectives to bring to the job.”
The national media should not only take Goldberg’s advice, but launch a public relations effort to tout their hiring diversity. Much like restaurants these days include nutritional information on their menus, news organizations should list their hiring practices on their websites. They should provide geographical information on where their staff resides or grew up, levels of education, military service, etc.
The American public would be more inclined to trust news organizations that put forth an effort to understand and respect their points of view.
There are a number of longstanding journalistic guidelines for covering a story, but they typically apply only to facts and sources; not so much the type of story. If political and ideological biases didn’t run rampant in news organizations, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. Unfortunately, the biases are real, and when it comes to politics, there is a lack of discipline and a clear double-standard from the mainstream media in how stories on Republicans and conservatives are covered as opposed to Democrats and liberals.
Granted, President Trump says and does a lot of things that are uniquely outrageous, and are indeed worthy of extra media scrutiny. But in cases in which his conduct is remarkably similar to President Obama’s, the media reactions have been starkly different.
For example, when Trump recently voiced a willingness to meet personally with foreign dictators, the news-media backlash was fast and severe. When Obama endorsed the same idea back in 2008, the media (other than Fox News) barely raised an eyebrow.
When Trump, a few months ago, complained that he had inherited “a mess” from the Obama administration, the statement was widely deemed by the media to be inappropriate and beneath the presidency. When Obama did the same with Bush over his entire first term in office, the media was much more forgiving.
During 2016’s presidential primary, journalists largely saw nobility in President Obama’s statement to the GOP candidates (in response to their harping on the country’s problems) that “There’s nothing particularly patriotic or American about talking down America…” Yet, eight years earlier, the media had nothing but empathy when Candidate Obama recognized a United States that was so incredibly flawed that he needed to “fundamentally transform” it.
And let’s not forget about the Bush era. If you look at some of the national news coverage from back then, you might be surprised by how obsessed the media was with the number of U.S. soldier deaths, terrorist attacks, and weaponized drones. Under Obama, you heard a lot less about such things, despite comparable (and in some cases, higher) numbers. And just imagine if the media had pursued notable Obama administration controversies and scandals with a fraction of the zest they used in going after Abu Ghraib, Plamegate, and even the dismissal of U.S. attorneys.
The American public notices these double standards, and people are rightfully ticked. So here is a policy that news organizations can put in place to compel their employees to make their coverage fairer:
If a journalist is going to cover a political story involving a Republican, they must research a similar story from the past, involving a Democrat, and assess how it was generally covered at the time. If they plan to present the new story in a much different light than the old one (and there may be a valid reason for this), they must cite the old story in their reporting, and explain why the new one is being treated differently. If a journalist has to go through these hurdles, there’s a much better chance he or she will exercise some professional discipline in their reporting.
In the rare event that a similar story does not exist, the journalist will be urged to consider how they would cover it, if it were about a Democrat (or liberal), and not a Republican (or conservative). If the person at the center of the story is Trump, they should consider Obama. If it’s Rex Tillerson, they should consider Hillary Clinton or John Kerry. Sometimes, an effective remedy to biased reporting is simply realizing that the bias exists in the first place. Introspection can’t be mandated, but it can be encouraged.
The logic above should be reversed if the current (or potential) story is about someone on the Left. The word “potential” is important because it applies to another symptom of media bias: omission.
For example, if a prominent liberal celebrity, like film director Joss Whedon, mocks young cancer survivors because they met with Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, there’s a good chance it’s going to get a lot less coverage than if Mel Gibson or Jerry Bruckheimer had done something comparable. If Stephen Colbert erupts into a vulgarity-laced censuring of President Trump, it’s going to get a lot less coverage than a rodeo clown who mocks President Obama at a state fair. This needs to stop if the media cares at all about consistency in reporting.
Of course, all of these rules should also be applied to the conservative media, especially the mirror test. After all, in the era of Trump, double standards from the Right have been off the chart.
Will these measures fix the problem and win back over the public? No, not at first. But they’re a good start, and a good start is what is needed from a vital institution that is only trusted by 30% of Americans.