Thursday’s hearing and Friday’s Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Judge Brett Kavanaugh laid bare this country’s increasingly deep divisions.
But it’s not just the Supreme Court nomination: Partisanship shapes the perception of nearly everything — including and especially the news media that report on these divides, according to a new Pew Research poll.
This split may endure and, in fact, become a fixture of political identity. That would not only be a danger to Democrats and Republicans, but the republic itself. A healthy democracy requires a fair, yet aggressive press corps to hold government accountable.
It should disappoint every citizen, regardless of political affiliation, when Pew reports that “specifically, strong divisions between Republicans and Democrats persist when it comes to support of the news media’s watchdog role, perceived fairness in political coverage, trust in information from both national and local news organizations, and ratings of how well the news media keep people informed.”
Most notably, there’s a near-record-high 44-percentage-point gap between Democrats’ and Republicans’ support for the media’s “watchdog” role: 82 percent of Democrats, but only 38 percent of Republicans, agree that “media criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing things they shouldn’t.” In contrast, there was only a 3-percentage-point gap between the parties as recently as 2016.
But now, a full 58 percent of Republicans believe “that criticism from news organizations keeps political leaders from doing their job” — an attitude that’s the antithesis of the Fourth Estate being a necessary check on the three branches of government.
Pew sees “a big switch that happened between 2016 and 2017,” said Jeffrey Gottfried, the senior researcher of the Pew study. “Before the Trump administration, we saw the Republicans and Democrats were about on par in thinking that news media criticism keeps our political leaders in line, and in 2017 we see a very drastic shift.” Depending on which party holds the White House, there are normal shifts between partisan support, Gottfried said, “but the splits that we see, these are historical levels.”
The data don’t discern specific reasons, but several dynamics are simultaneously at play: hard-hitting but legitimate journalistic investigations of the Trump administration, as well as the president’s relentless rhetorical assault on the media that’s often echoed by conservative cable and talk radio hosts.
“Broadly, when elites critique the media, it affects what the public believes about the media,” said University of Texas Prof. Natalie Jomini Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project. Stroud, author of “Niche News: The Politics of News Choice,” pointed to specific academic research on the topic and added that “the combination of elite discourse about ‘fake news’ and constant media discussion about misinformation likely make people more wary of the news media.”
Accordingly, Stroud continued, “News media efforts to defend themselves arguably need to be more intense.”
Pew’s poll data point to the same conclusion.
The good news for news organizations is that 71 percent of Americans believe that “they typically go into a news story expecting that it will be largely accurate.” The bad news? Fifty-eight percent say that “news organizations do not understand people like them,” while 56 percent say that “they do not feel particularly connected to the outlet they get most of their national news from” — a striking statistic in this binary Fox News/MSNBC era.
And perhaps most piercing, 68 percent say that they think news organizations “try to cover up their mistakes.” The same number “think news organizations tend to favor one side when presenting the news on political and social issues.”
News media organizations should take these figures as a requirement to redouble their efforts, especially in quickly and completely correcting mistakes and addressing the perception, and at times the reality, of bias. And despite much of the media missing the signs of President Donald Trump’s triumph in the 2016 election, there’s still too much out-of-touch, in-studio punditry instead of on-the-ground reporting.
But despite the drift away from average Americans, the news media still play a vital role in our democracy, and Republicans should resist allowing distrust of the media to become a fixed position, or even a branding component, of their party in the same way the GOP has long stood for more military spending or other durable policy positions.
Trump will not lead this recalibration. In fact, he’s done the opposite in trying to discredit journalists reporting on his administration. Instead it will be up to supporters and leaders alike to reject his rhetoric and pull the party back to its historic norms.
Americans seem to realize that they are the ultimate losers in the current press-president relationship. Asked last year about the tensions between Trump and the media, 83 percent characterized the relationship as “generally unhealthy” and the vast majority, 73 percent, said that “the tensions between Trump and the media are getting in the way of Americans’ access to important political news.”
Encouragingly, the fissures becoming fixtures of American opinion were mostly absent in this poll. There was just a 3-percentage-point gap between men (82 percent) and women (85 percent) who expressed this sentiment, and very narrow differences when accounting for age, income, education and race. And perhaps most profoundly, there was a much smaller split between Republicans (78 percent) and Democrats (88 percent).
America’s glaring gaps, which were on such dramatic display in the U.S. Senate and in U.S. society this week, are dangerous to our democracy.
And they’re only exacerbated by reflexively attacking or disbelieving those who report on the underlying dynamics that create the divide. Bridges to more civilly restore and reconnect our society can only be built by citizens who are fully informed of the facts regarding our government. That requires an unflinching watchdog press, which in turn requires support from Americans regardless of their political affiliation.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.