The jury is in: Americans hate the media.
A Reuters Institute report released this week ranks the U.S. last among 46 countries when it comes to trust in the media. Only 29 percent of respondents agreed that “you can trust most news most of the time.”
There’s no mystery as to what’s going on here. The mainstream media has shot itself in the foot, and American readers know it. They know that their media has of late taken to exhibiting a shocking absence of inquisitiveness, accuracy, accountability and even just facticity. We’re living through an epidemic of not admitting one’s mistakes, of walking nothing back. Instead, the media seems to be constantly perpetuating the fiction that we are in such a high state of emergency that the ends justify the means.
They don’t—especially when the means are media fails.
Recent weeks have provided a number of such fails, which go a long way to explaining the Reuters findings. Take, for example, the wildly misreported story breathlessly recounted in all major news outlets, that the police had used force to drive Black Lives Matter protesters out of Lafayette Park last year. Not three weeks ago, the Washington Post published a video that claimed that “the evidence strongly suggests” that the protestors were cleared out of the park so that then-President Trump could pose for a photo op. But a U.S. District Court Judge rejected demonstrators’ claims for damages on the grounds that their complaint was “too speculative to confer standing.”
This was only the latest in a strong of media fails. Liberal publications that predicted doomsday death numbers when states like Texas and Florida called off their mask bans did not, when the numbers did not precipitously climb, come out and say, gee, glad we were wrong about that! Instead, as recently as this month, the New York Times was heralding Florida data scientist and COVID-19 “whistleblower” Rebekah Jones, well after Ms. Jones’s findings were shown to have been fraudulent.
But it’s not just partisanship driving errors that has Americans feeling distrustful of media. It’s the way the outlets they’ve previously trusted have been caving to pressure, to doctrinaires on both sides of the aisle.
Few mainstream news outlets have fallen prey to this quite as often or as publicly as the New York Times. The paper forbid 45-year Times veteran Donald McNeil from defending himself from accusations of racism after he repeated the n-word to better understand a question a student asked about it on a Times-sponsored trip. As McNeil was smeared across news outlets and forbidden from rebutting the spurious claims, the Times pressured McNeil to resign—all while the Times was simultaneously reaching out to the Pulitzer committee to reassure them that McNeil’s work was Pulitzer worthy.
“Fearing the controversy would cost them a Pulitzer, the Times wrote to the Pulitzer jury and board to reassure them that I was not a racist,” McNeil told Fox News after the prizes were announced, McNeil’s work included.
How are readers supposed to trust an organization willing to sacrifice a veteran reporter based on lies and which they knew they were lies? What else will they lie about? And do they have so little regard for readers they’ll keep stoking provable falsehoods so long as it keeps the doors open?
I appreciate that the heated politics of (at least) the past four years have infected much of the media and the public with a fever some don’t yet quite want to break. It gives us definition to know who to hate, to have everything be so black and white we need not think. But it turns out, you sacrifice something when you nakedly pursue a side. You lose the trust of your readers.
I saw this sort of reportorial partisanship on display during the protests of 2020. I was on the ground in Portland, and saw first hand how the same event—say, the federal building being set on fire—would be covered by Fox News as “Savages are coming to your town!” and by MSNBC as “Nothing to see here, folks,” if it was covered at all.
That the story I knew firsthand was way more nuanced was something I knew from being on the scene. I also knew how far the reporters for mainstream publications would go to appease the activists they were covering.
But they were also appeasing their readers. People wanted it one way or the other; they did not want to see the humanity in the “other side,” did not want to know their motivations. Whether on the Right (Portland will always be an anarchist shithole) or the Left (the police are the problem, now and forever), confirmation bias is what readers and viewers hunger for.
Sadly, it’s on the menu.
Is it not attendant on any news outlet to be curious and flexible enough to report that things change? How can it be anything other than dishonest or craven to cling to what you know to be a deteriorating or false narrative?
A friend asked me yesterday whether the proliferation of journalists leaving their motherships to report via Substack and YouTube would result in “news we can’t trust.” On the contrary, I told him: The writers I know who have done this did so because the outlets they’d worked for had themselves become untrustworthy, deciding it was more important to push one agenda or another than report with at least a gloss of objectivity and let readers decide for themselves.
It’s my belief that while readers may not immediately realize they’re being force-fed an agenda and may even like the taste of it, at a certain point, they will tire of being manipulated and go get their news where their intelligence is respected.
Apparently, as the Reuters report indicates, that time is now.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.