We’re all more tuned in to the media than ever before, glued to our smart phones all day, reading newsfeeds, sending links and sharing articles. But while we rely on journalists to ask the questions we want answered, increasingly, we don’t just hate the answers, we hate the askers. Jonathan Ladd talks about this growing public antagonism toward the media in his new book, Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters. Recently I asked him to share some thoughts on how the press has gone from respected institution to one of the most readily disparaged, and what he thinks is the impact of this growing distrust. Read his thoughts after the jump:
While the news media is more diverse than it has been for many decades, journalists are less trusted and subjected to ever more political criticism. In the race for this year’s Republican presidential nomination, for a time former House Speaker Newt Gingrich surged and even led in national polls despite little campaign organization or money. To do this, he relied heavily on his performance in televised debates, where he regularly attacked the journalists asking questions instead of the other candidates. He did this regardless of the network hosting the debate, telling Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, “I wish you would put away the gotcha questions,” during a Fox-sponsored debate.
Of course, attacking the media is not a new political strategy. In 2009, less than a year into the Obama administration, Interim White House Communications Director Anita Dunn labeled Fox News “the communications arm of the Republican Party,” while Obama Senior Advisor David Axelrod said Fox is “really not news. It’s pushing a point of view.” Further back, George W. Bush’s endorsed Bernard Goldberg’s book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News by displaying it during a White House photo-op, and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole declared in a 1996 campaign speech, “We’ve got to stop the liberal bias in this country. Don’t read the stuff. Don’t watch television. You make up your own mind. Don’t let them make up your mind for you. We are not going to let the media steal this election. The country belongs to the people, not the New York Times.”
Many media analysts view this as an ominous new problem, often tracing its genesis back to President Richard Nixon and the speeches his Vice President Spiro Agnew gave attacking the press. For instance, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hotline and current Congressional Quarterly blogger Craig Crawford has written that “Today’s media is as bullied as ever” and that “[p]ublic distrust of the news media is one of the most hazardous political challenges now facing Americans.” In his postmortem on the 2004 presidential election, Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Nicholas Lemann wrote in the New Yorker that, “…2004 was such a bad-karma campaign year for the mainstream media, which collectively felt both more harshly attacked and less important—a pair of misfortunes that rarely occur at the same time.”
However, struggles between news organizations and politicians occur over and over in American history. These include Franklin Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes’ years long campaign against hostile newspapers, and go all-the-way back to the founding generation, when George Washington wrote of, “the Editors [sic] of the different Gazettes [sic] in the Union…stuffing their papers with scurrility and nonsensical declamation…” Similarly, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”
Alarm about political attacks on the news media largely comes from assuming the 1950s and early 1960s as a baseline. But small ideological divisions between the parties, relative income equality, and low levels of competition in the news industry made this era very unusual. As these three conditions have faded away, politicians and activists have returned to cultivating partisan news outlets and attacked the credibility of independent information sources.
This should not be surprising. As most of American history attests to, politicians have a natural incentive to attack the credibility of news sources that could transmit politically damaging messages. We should no more be supervised when politicians attack the media than when they attack their political opponents.
Given this, scolding politicians who attack the press or wishing for the past to return is not the answer. However, mass distrust of the media and the increasing reliance on information sources that confirm people’s predispositions has potentially serious consequences. If people never encounter or trust messages that they disagree with, elected leaders will have little incentive to cater to their interests because their votes will be little affected by public policy and its consequences.
Instead of scolding politicians for attacking the press and hoping they will stop, as a nation we should try to develop better ways to inform the public in an era with a distrusted, fragmented press. These include continuing and enhancing government support for public television and radio, which continue to be among the most trusted news sources and those that cling most strongly to the mid-twentieth century style of objective reporting. The federal government should also consider more aggressive efforts to directly publicize policy outcomes like the state of the national economy, the results of overseas wars and the consequences of major legislation such as the 2009-10 health care reform. Rather than hoping for a return the media environment of the mid-twentieth century, government should take pro-active measures to insure politically relevant information reaches voters even when politicians regularly undermine media trust.
Jonathan M. Ladd is assistant professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University