A funny thing happened on the way to America’s turn away from mainstream media: The mainstream media finally noticed.
The most recent Gallup poll about trust in the mainstream media, released in July, found confidence in newspapers and television news at all-time lows. “Just 16% of U.S. adults now say they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in newspapers and 11% in television news,” Gallup reported. “Both readings are down five percentage points since last year.”
Trust is down among all Americans, but most notably among those who identify as Republican voters. This has given the mainstream media a convenient explanatory narrative, one that flatters their pretensions while blaming the problem on those same voters.
Writing in New York magazine, David Freedlander attempted to explain “why Republicans stopped talking to the press.” He heard from GOP strategists who told him, “I just don’t even see what the point is anymore. . . . We know reporters always disagreed with the Republican Party, but it used to be you thought you could get a fair shake. Now every reporter, and every outlet, is just chasing resistance rage-clicks.”
Freedlander obliquely acknowledged the fact that mainstream journalists are overwhelmingly liberal, particularly the younger generation of journalists. “Today’s college graduates, especially from the kind of elite institutions that end up working in media, are overwhelmingly left of center,” Freedlander wrote. “So even if the media doesn’t skew left by the standards of its demographic cohort, its demographic cohort is the most liberal slice of the electorate.”
And yet he concludes that the real problem is the Republicans who refuse to play by the mainstream media’s rules, instead turning to alternative conservative outlets to promote their message.
Other mainstream outlets have taken this critique of conservative media a step further, seeing them not merely as a rabble-rousing alternative but as a stark threat to democracy. To advance this argument, its proponents conflate voting Republican with being “right-wing,” or extremist, which then allows them to make the short journey to calling anyone with whom they disagree an enemy of democracy.
New York Times editorial-board member Mara Gay (who once said she was “disturbed” by the sight of “dozens of American flags” displayed by Donald Trump supporters on Long Island) frequently expounds on this theme. Appearing on MSNBC, Gay said, “The difference is the sense of grievance we’re seeing in that larger right-wing megasphere…. The right-wing media has been all too quick to blame nonwhite Americans, to blame democratic institutions, and it’s essentially, if we don’t control it, well then let’s burn the whole thing down. And that’s what this is. This is about power. And so there are some people in America who are more interested in having power than democracy…. If they can’t have power through the democracy, they would rather not have the democracy.”
This fits well within the new “democracy in crisis” beat, which has conveniently emerged to fill the ratings void left by Donald Trump’s exit from the presidency. The Washington Post recently created a specialized “Democracy Team,” and the New York Times has developed a dedicated “Democracy Challenged” rubric across all sections of the paper. As Times executive editor Joe Kahn told NPR in June, “you can’t be committed to independent journalism and be agnostic about the state of democracy.”
It also allows journalists intent on pointing out Republican motes to avoid seeing the beams in their own eyes. “GOP politicians are increasingly shirking sit-down interviews, barring journalists from 2022 events, and skipping debates—an aversion to media scrutiny that could upend how the next presidential election cycle is covered,” Vanity Fair complained recently. And yet the magazine has evinced little concern for the current president’s record of aversion to just such media scrutiny.
The mainstream media are so convinced they are the ones really under siege that CNN, in its Reliable Sources newsletter, went so far as to assign itself the role of David to the conservative media’s Goliath. “It’s not just Fox and talk radio anymore. In the U.S. there is a huge universe of conservative media; a smaller universe of liberal media; and many mainstream news outlets that position themselves outside the partisan fray,” CNN claimed.
In this telling, any Republican’s refusal to engage the mainstream media marks him or her as a budding authoritarian. Jonathan Chait of New York: “Without media accountability, Republicans will govern like a one-party state.” He decried “the right’s war on independent media” and singled out Florida governor Ron DeSantis for special censure.
“The only ‘journalists’ they deem legitimate are ones who are functionally working for them,” Chait wrote. “They communicate to their base through a news echo chamber that grants them almost unlimited right to violate ethics, norms, or their own promises.” Like Freedlander, Chait conceded that there is an “overall liberal lean” among reporters, but he claimed that the ideological biases this creates “have made their strongest mark in the coverage of culture and lifestyle, while political news has mostly retained its traditional character.”
This might come as a surprise to many Republican elected officials. In a telling example in his article, Freedlander cited a CBS 60 Minutes report from 2021 that accused Florida governor Ron DeSantis of taking money from Publix supermarkets in a “pay-for-play” scheme involving Covid-19 vaccines—an accusation that was flatly proven false.
Freedlander describes the events in question as evidence that politicians like DeSantis are looking for opportunities to accuse the media of lying for political advantage. (Any conservative reader of mainstream news will recognize the set-up as the “Republicans pounce” scenario.) In fact, the 60 Minutes reporter repeatedly and misleadingly characterized Florida’s vaccine rollout and even edited out DeSantis’s detailed, on-the-record explanation to make it seem as if the governor had been defensive and belligerent rather than forthright.
Similarly, in early August, the New York Times published a news story about DeSantis’s decision to suspend a Florida prosecutor for neglect of duty after that prosecutor announced his intention to not enforce the state’s abortion law. The Times reporter dropped this unsourced editorial tidbit in the first paragraph of the story: “The startling decision by the governor immediately raised concerns among critics who say that he has become increasingly authoritarian.”
A reader doesn’t need to be brainwashed by a conservative podcast host or a right-wing news website to understand that these little character assassinations embedded in ostensibly straight news stories are unfair and deliberately misleading. DeSantis exercised a power entirely within his constitutional authority and one he had used to general acclaim when it involved the dismissal of the sheriff in the county where the Parkland school shooting took place. While elite media institutions like the New York Times boast of their commitment to honesty and democracy, even a child sees the problem: The Gray Lady has no clothes.
“The incentive structure that is now in place allows Republican politicians to escape any accountability whatsoever,” Chait complained. But these politicians are accountable. They are accountable to voters, who have the power to elect or reject them, and to whom they can now speak directly through social-media platforms, podcasts, and other outside-the-mainstream outlets, for better and for worse. Chait is frustrated that we no longer live in an era when elite political journalists and their editors could put forward those they deemed the best and brightest and present them on a platter to a grateful public.
Conservative media can be deeply problematic, but too many mainstream media outlets have repeatedly demonstrated that lack of seriousness and an aversion to facts is not limited to one part of the media ecosystem. As for Republican politicians, is it any surprise that many no longer seek approval from institutions that have repeatedly revealed that they find them and their voters contemptible? The one-sided breakup story the mainstream press is telling itself right now isn’t going to solve the larger problem of the public mistrust it claims to want to heal.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.