The Trump administration has called the media dishonest, fake, and unreliable, and it’s clear that these attacks are designed to undercut the legitimacy of the mainstream media. This is the administration’s strategy for winning over public opinion: shut down criticism by going after the credibility of dissenters, whether it be television networks, newspapers, or individual journalists.
What most in the media don’t realize, however, is that this strategy could actually work. And here is why:
Any assumption that the Trump administration’s hostility towards journalists is the root of public distrust in the media is incorrect.
According to a Gallup poll from September 14, 2016 – when a Clinton victory seemed imminent – only 32 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media. This number is an all-time low for media trust, following a clear trend over the past two decades.
Whether you were a Sanders supporter angry over the media not taking your candidate seriously enough, a Clinton supporter frustrated by obsessive coverage of the Benghazi and her email scandal, or a Trump supporter pushed away by the media’s constant barraging of your candidate’s behavior, you had a reason to dislike the mainstream media during the most recent election.
Obviously aware of these trends, the Trump team chose to merely play into pre-existing attitudes. Trump has regularly called major news outlets “fake news,” and even declared them the enemy of the American people.
Trump and his supporters repeatedly point out instances of perceived bias, like when, for example, Democrats who met with the Russian Ambassador – after claiming they never did – avoided the tough scrutiny that Jeff Sessions and other Trump advisors received when they met with Russian officials. Conservative news site Red State claims that the New York Times “airbrushed” away a paragraph about Senator Claire McCaskill saying she “never” met with Russian officials after it came out that she, in fact, did. Archived versions of the article on NewsDiff show that the Times article cited by Red State was edited without documentation.
New York Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy responded to the undocumented edits, telling MediaFile, “We routinely edit breaking news stories online in real time as facts come in and news changes.”
Trump has since taken to attacking the journalistic practice of quoting anonymous sources, due to steady flow of leaked information from staffers within his administration. The only opinion poll available on the subject is outdated, but it shows that only 28 percent of the public thinks it is ethical for journalists to rely on anonymous sources.
The Trump team’s tactics seem to be working. A Fox News poll released last month showed that the public now trusts Trump over the mainstream media by a 3 percent margin.
Attacks from the leader of the free world and the growing trend of media skepticism are naturally putting journalism under extreme scrutiny. And when anyone or anything is under a microscope, there is no forgiveness for mistakes.
The ease with which Trump, or one of his political operatives, can capitalize on a potential slip-up should have all journalists worried.
Such an instance occurred last week, when the Associated Press accidentally published the email address of Second Lady Karen Pence, leaving her inbox vulnerable to trolls and threats. Vice President Mike Pence responded by claiming that the AP “violated [his wife’s] privacy and security,” and demanding they take the story down. When the AP refused, Pence’s staff wrote a letter to the AP’s CEO, Gary Pruitt, saying, “You should be ashamed of your reprehensible conduct.”
This was an easy opportunity for the Trump team to rally both its supporters as well as those who sympathize with the Pences rather than the media.
Media organizations—now, more than ever—need to prove they are reliable sources holding the best interest of the American people. Journalists cannot afford more mistakes like the one AP endured last week. Slip-ups will only play into Trump’s hand, and confirm biases already held by most of the public.
News outlets cannot continue to act like Trump is alone in his dislike of the media. Trump certainly doesn’t approve of the media, but many Americans seem to harbor the same feeling. With this in mind, journalists need to do their job and do it right if they want to win the public opinion war.