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Why Do Americans Hate The Media?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Our question for today: Why do Americans hate/distrust the press so much?

I’m thinking we’ll break this down into three parts:

  1. Who hates what? What do we know about which groups of Americans distrust which media outlets/types? How has that changed?
  2. Why? What do we know about what’s causing trust to sink?
  3. The Trump factor. How does coverage of the Trump administration — in particular, the Russia investigation — fit into all of this?

Does that work for everyone? Everyone ready?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Here. But … on a plane!

micah: Do it, Clare!

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Nate’s on a plaaaannnnne!!

micah: lol. That’ll never not be funny.

OK, first up: Who hates what?

Let’s start broad and then get as specific as we can.

clare.malone: Well, Micah, Americans in general have not loved the press for decades and decades! According to Gallup, the most trust we had in newspapers was in 1979, when 51 percent of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. Downhill since then!

I wrote about it in this story from 2016, post-election. Only 20 percent of Americans trusted newspapers in 2016. Yoikes.

natesilver: Republicans hate the media a lot, and Democrats hate the media a little.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): According to a December 2017 Poynter report:

The survey found that 74% of respondents who identify as Democrats, or who lean Democratic, have “a great deal” (19%) or “a fair amount” (55%) of confidence in the media. A poll taken in September 2016 asked the same question and found that 51% of Democrats expressed the same level of support, meaning that their confidence has increased 23 percentage points in just one year.

Seventy-four percent confidence in the press is the highest level registered for Democrats since 1997, the earliest date for which similar data is available.

Meanwhile, the numbers among Republicans are declining.

micah: Holy moly, look at President Trump’s effect:

clare.malone: Anyhow. Yes, Republicans trust the media less. And it started well before this election cycle. A couple of people I’ve talked to about this — Republicans, expert and non — have cited the misreporting about George W. Bush’s military service as one of the first times they can remember an inflection point, a feeling that the media was partisan.

So this is a theme that goes back a ways.

micah: But Democrats gaining trust is new, right? And seems Trump-related? The enemy of my enemy, I guess.

clare.malone: I mean, I’m old enough to remember when Democratic primary voters — in particular, Bernie Sanders supporters — were berating the media about coverage during the 2016 election.

micah: That was then, Clare. Now we have President Trump.

natesilver: Yeah. It’s all about Trump, and saying you like the media is a way to say you’re not on Team Trump.

clare.malone: Indeed. Just wanted to cite this, so that readers know that this elephant never forgets.


natesilver: The media also arguably cost Hillary Clinton the election, so there’s that too.

clare.malone: There is that … I have this faint recollection of having heard you say that before, Nate …

micah: So that gets us a bit into the why of this.

clare.malone: So, yeah, there are valid criticisms of media coverage! It’s an industry in heavy flux and financial peril, which doesn’t help.

perry: It looks like the Poynter data shows that even in 1999, in the midst of the media being a big force in the near takedown of a Democratic president, Democrats trusted the media more than Republicans did. There has been, since the days of Richard Nixon (if not before), a drumbeat on the right that the mainstream media is anti-Republican. I don’t think Democrats have pressed the case as hard that the media is opposed to them. So I think Trump tapped into pre-existing conservative concerns about the press.

Had Barack Obama attacked the media, directly, for much of his presidency, I think that would have shifted liberal views of the press broadly.

natesilver: What’s confusing is that, anecdotally, there seems to be an uptick in criticism of the media from Democrats. Which I guess reflects my bubble and not the polling data.

micah: Here’s an excerpt from a book called “Why Americans Distrust the Media and How It Matters” by Jonathan M. Ladd:

This leads us to the two most likely sources of the public’s increasing antipathy toward the media: tabloid coverage and elite opinion leadership. Like several other styles of news, tabloid coverage has increased over the same period that press confidence has declined. Yet unlike other styles, my experiment indicates that tabloid coverage’s effects, while larger among Democrats, are enough to produce significant declines in overall media ratings …

The evidence also consistently supports the importance of elite opinion leadership. Criticism of the press has greatly increased over the past 40 years on both sides of the political spectrum. However, criticism among conservatives started earlier and even now appears to be more intense and widespread than criticism from liberals. …

Considered together, Democratic elite criticism and Republican elite criticism can reduce media confidence across a broad spectrum of the public. In many ways, Craig Crawford (2006, 15) is correct when he claims that “[p]oliticians won the war against the media with a simple rule: first, attack the messenger.

clare.malone: omg

This block of text … I thought for a second that you JUST WROTE IT!

micah: No, no. Basically, it says what Perry just said — there’s a drumbeat of criticism (i.e., “elite opinion leadership”) — but it also points to “tabloid coverage” as a cause.

clare.malone: I mean, sure! An effective method in debate is to call the facts into question. That’s what you do when you call the press into question. And the press, made up of flawed individuals, sometimes gets stuff wrong.

micah: For realz — let’s not overlook some huge media failures.

The Iraq War.

clare.malone: Whoops!

micah: The Bush military service thing.

clare.malone: Whoops!

micah: The 2016 election.

clare.malone: Whoops!

natesilver: The financial crisis.

clare.malone: Whoops!

micah: I mean, to a lesser extent, I’d even throw the 2012 election in there, in that the media was determined to treat it as a too-close-to-call race. The 2008 Democratic primary. And the swiftboating of John Kerry.

perry: But most of those examples should have made Democrats trust the media less (Iraq, financial crisis, 2016), so I think that points in the direction of elite criticism of the media playing a big part.

micah: Yeah, Democratic trust in the media is likely paper thin.

Once Trump leaves office …

natesilver: I wonder if the spike in 2017 is a bit temporary and also partly reflects the fact that 2017 isn’t an election year.

micah: tfw Nate repeats a point I just made.

natesilver: I’m on a PLANE, Micah — it’s remarkable I can even be communicating with you at all.

clare.malone: Media hate kicks in when partisan interests do.

perry: The spike (Democrats being even more pro-media) might go away, but the broader trends are that the media and colleges are — for whatever reason — part of Team Blue, but churches are on Team Red. I think those trends will endure.

natesilver: In the long run, having stark partisan differences in trust of media is probably going to lead to more distrust of media. It puts “mainstream” media in a difficult spot when the large majority of their consumers — and also the large majority of their reporters — are liberals or Democrats or at least “cosmopolitans.”

micah: Before we talk about how the current convo fits into this, can we try to de-broad-brush “media” at all?

For instance, do Democrats trust all sorts of media? Do Republicans hate all sorts of media?

clare.malone: Yeah, ’cause technically the Oscars and stuff are “media.”

Media has entertainment aspects …

Anyhow, pet peeve! We are the press portion of the media, but I do think Republicans tend to see most parts of the media, including entertainment-industry sectors, as being liberal-leaning.

micah: Well, and going back to the earlier “tabloid coverage” thing, I do think when people see 500 reporters swarming some Casey Anthony-related person, that colors their perception of all types of media.

natesilver: Yeah, the fragmentation of the media is the other big part of the story here. It’s a bit like how everyone hates Congress but more people like their own member of Congress.

micah: Well, and we have evidence that’s happening here too. From “The Media Insight Project”:

clare.malone: I think that “media” has kinda become a stand-in for “cable news.”

When people criticize the media, I mean. I think they’re often referring to what happens on cable — i.e., talking heads and people swarming houses of people with dead family members.

And the editorial process is a little more on the fly on cable.

natesilver: Nobody truly has a broad audience anymore — maybe ABC/CBS/NBC are the closest thing to an exception — but most news outlets are catering to an audience of several million people (at most) in a country of more than 320 million people.

perry: So this Pew report is from 2014 but is interesting:

Those with consistently conservative political values are oriented around a single outlet—Fox News—to a much greater degree than those in any other ideological group: Nearly half (47%) of those who are consistently conservative name Fox News as their main source for government and political news. Far fewer choose any other single source: Local radio ranks second, named by 11%, with no other individual source named by more than 5% of consistent conservatives. Those with mostly conservative views also gravitate strongly toward Fox News – 31% name it as their main source, several times the share who name the next most popular sources, including CNN (9%), local television (6%) and radio (6%) and Yahoo News (6%).

On the left of the political spectrum, no single outlet predominates. Among consistent liberals, CNN (15%), NPR (13%), MSNBC (12%) and the New York Times (10%) all rank near the top of the list. CNN is named by just 20% of those with mostly liberal views, but still tops their list, followed by local television (11%) and NPR (9%). Both MSNBC and Fox News are mentioned by 5% of those who are mostly liberal. Those in other ideological groups name the New York Times, NPR and MSNBC less frequently as top news sources.

Clare is right that political media, mainstream media, media like TV and movies and local media are all somewhat different things.

clare.malone: I do think there are a lot of people who still get their news from, say, one national program in the morning or evening and then local news fills in elsewhere. And that coverage is different.

Sinclair, a conservative entity, is making inroads into local media, for instance. That seems wise if you have a point of view to push.

perry: Also, the filter bubbles/echo chambers narrative is overstated, according to scholars. People say they watch only Fox or MSNBC, but that is not really true. This is from some political scientists:

On television, media outlets with a significant partisan or ideological slant simply do not reach most of the U.S. population. The audience of Fox News and MSNBC peaks at 2 million to 3 million for well-known shows by hosts like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow in prime time. By comparison, about 24 million Americans tune into nightly network news broadcasts on NBC, ABC, and CBS and over 10 million viewers watch these networks’ Sunday morning political talk shows. These audiences are in turn dwarfed by those for entertainment, where programs like The Big Bang Theory and Sunday Night Football attract as many as 20 million viewers.

Online news audience data tells a similar story. For instance, Breitbart ranked as only the 281st most trafficked site in the United States in April 2017. By comparison, The Washington Post and The New York Times ranked in the top 40 sites by traffic. All are dwarfed by sites dedicated to entertainment and shopping.

At this point, when someone is attacking the media and being non-specific, I question their motives. Media outlets are so distinct that saying the “media is doing x” is really not informing people or attempting to address a real issue but more finding a bogeyman that is vague and amorphous.

micah: OK, so let’s talk about how the current political environment/dominant stories/Trump is affecting all this. We already touched on the fact that Trump seems to have increased Democratic faith in the press.

In particular, I’ve wondered about the Russia investigation and how it’s covered.

clare.malone: I mean, it’s SUCH a sexy story for cable news to follow the breadcrumbs of “did the campaign collude with Russians???” But it is soooo overwhelming, to the point of, what else is on TV?

And in some ways, it’s understandable, because the media is trying to follow along with a tight-lipped, wide-ranging independent counsel investigation — the scoops come out gradually, and they are all about the president and his close advisers.

micah: Perry mentioned this Axios story before we started this chat, which advises people to ignore the “Mueller looking into TK” stories. I think that’s totally right.

natesilver: Be smart: Don’t read any stories unless they’re in Axios.

micah: Come on, Nate!

natesilver: Really? That the scope of the probe is expansive seems important to me.

perry: I find the “Mueller is investigating x” stories challenging. 1. Some of them are duh, yes, of course he is investigating that. 2. Some are, sure, he is investigating everything but is that really going to be prosecuted? 3. All of them are inherently incomplete — are missing what he is really investigating. I was surprised by the indictment of those Russian nationals, despite reading more than 1,000 stories about the Russia investigation in the last year.

I guess my concern is that the outlets are overly focused on their scoop for the day, to prove how plugged in they are, and not trying to give readers a sense of the scale and importance of each development.

clare.malone: Well, people like to guzzle these news shots.

natesilver: Huh? Even based on the indictments he’s already issued, it clearly seems to be quite expansive. So now there’s reporting from credible news outlets suggesting that it might be even more expansive, yet. Seems worthy of reporting.

clare.malone: We’re all drunk on the news!

But you’re right, Perry — I bet very few Americans could give you a paragraph-long summation of what the investigation and its threads are all about.

They’re just about SCANDAL writ large right now.

micah: Nate, it’s not that I’m advocating against reporting those stories, it’s just I think more space in those stories needs to be spent on the context and scale.

natesilver: It’s a hard story to wrap one’s head around, that’s for sure. And so I’m all for reporting along the lines of “here’s what really matters and what doesn’t.” I’m just not sure that anyone knows what matters. And there’s a bias toward claiming the things you report on or specialize in are what matter and everything else doesn’t.

clare.malone: Know who I actually think does a competent job of delineating wheat from chaff? Preet Bharara. In the first 10 minutes of his podcast, he basically does a Russia update. It’s helpful to hear lawyers talk about this stuff.

perry: I have some real concerns about Trump administration coverage more generally and how it exacerbates these media trust problems. The coverage of who is leaving and staying at the White House creates a sense of drama and often suggests that it hurts Trump’s governing (even if that’s not always true). But Trump’s campaign was chaotic and full of warring staffers. And they won. The palace intrigue story are interesting and gets lot of clicks, leaving the press hoping that they matter. But it’s not clear they do.

micah: Are there incentives Trump has introduced that could be good for long-term trust in the media?

For instance, I think it’ll be a good thing if we come out of this caring less about what a president — any president — says. (As opposed to what they do.)

natesilver: Well, now we get into my own biases — because of course it would be nice if the reasons I don’t like mainstream media coverage of politics are the same reasons other people don’t like it. But I have no idea if that’s true or not.

Personally, I think it’s good that Trump is forcing media to rethink its “both sides” framing on a number of issues.

micah: And many mainstream outlets have gotten more comfortable saying blunt and negative (but true) things — i.e., “the president lied” — which seems like a good thing.

natesilver: Yeah. There’s still a lot of more mushy language, of course, but news outlets now know to expect pushback from (mostly liberal) readers when they adopt those frames, in a way that they didn’t expect a few years ago.

Certainly, Trump has increased the attention and prestige on investigative reporting, and that’s almost certainly a Good Thing.

He maybe also increased the attention and prestige on access journalism, because there’s so much juicy gossip in the White House, and that’s probably a Bad Thing. But it’s outweighed by the Good Thing if newspapers are also devoting more resources to investigations.

micah: Perry, you’re in the belly of the beast in D.C. — have you noticed any Good/Bad shifts?

perry: I think the bad shift, as I wrote in my recent John Kelly story, is that the palace intrigue beat is more populated than ever and full of reporters trying to break the story of whether Jared Kushner is mad at Kelly, for example, or stories full of unnamed sources that confuse readers. The good thing is there is way, way more coverage of Congress, like there was a lot of really in-depth, strong coverage of the tax and health care bills.

micah: OK, final thoughts?

natesilver: We haven’t talked at all about the decline in local media, which I suspect is an important reason for the decline in trust. And which is also something which is probably not getting better in the Trump era, with focus on stories in and around D.C. and the White House.

micah: That’s interesting. We should test that hypothesis.

perry: I was watching cable news on Friday, and I was surprised by how little attention there was on the legislative debate on guns in Florida and the West Virginia teacher strike. It was tariffs, Hope Hicks, Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

I just think the Trump story sells and that is where the media is.

natesilver: In terms of testing that hypothesis, Micah, maybe you could look at cities that still happen to have good local newspapers and see if overall trust in the media is higher there (although there are lots of endogeneity problems in determining cause/effect).

But people aren’t necessarily getting news about their city council, or other things happening in their community, or even how their local sports team is doing.

micah: And more of that kind of coverage likely changes people’s relationship with media.

perry: I’m not sure it does.

When people are polled, when they think of “the media,” I suspect they are thinking more CNN than the Courier-Journal.

micah: But that’s my point, Perry — whether they think of CNN first or the Courier-Journal first makes a big difference in how they view “the media.”

Were the latter a bigger presence in their lives maybe they would think of it first?

perry: I think my point is that the media is now a cultural idea more than what you are reading. And the media is “bad” in the GOP culture — a bunch more reporters at the Courier-Journal isn’t going to change that because the reporter covering the city council isn’t “the media,” he’s a reporter. Wolf Blitzer is the media.

To go back to what Clare said: The media is not a particularly useful term to describe anything.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.