Furfur / CC-BY-SA

As the political pundits keep reminding us, this might be called the “hate” election. Both major parties’ presumptive nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have historically high net unfavorable ratings – so high that voters are said to be casting their ballots against a candidate rather than in favor of one. The question seems to be: Whom do you hate less? But this narrative, which threatens to be the dominant one of this political season, has two flaws. In the first place, none of the candidates has had particularly high favorability ratings this campaign – not Cruz or Sanders or Jeb Bush or even the anointed one, Marco Rubio. Only John Kasich would qualify as “popular,” if a paltry net favorability of 12 percent makes you so. So Trump’s and Clinton’s ratings are the equivalent of, say, the batting averages during a baseball season in which no one is hitting very well. Americans are just in a very surly, unreceptive mood. They hate everybody. The second flaw is that the candidates’ unfavorability ratings set up yet another false equivalency: that Trump and Clinton have somehow earned their enmity in equal measure – Trump for his racist, sexist, bullying remarks, his endless prevarications and his general depreciation of the entire political process, and Clinton for… well, Clinton, apparently, for having used a private email server for communications that only later were classified. See? They’re two peas in a pod. But within this very angry electorate is another hate boiling, and it may very well alter the course of the election. That is the hate the public feels for the media, especially the mainstream media. Many of us remember a time when the MSM actually were held in high regard — when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was among the most respected men in America, and when Woodward and Bernstein were lionized for helping save democracy from the undemocratic depredations of Richard Nixon. As late as 2005, according to a Gallup survey, more than 50 percent of Americans trusted the media either a “great deal” or a “fair amount.” Not any more. Last year that figure was 40 percent, with the severest doubts among the young. In their 2013 analysis of the media, the Pew Research Center found a similar distrust and respondents enumerated several reasons why: bias, of course (76 percent felt the media took one political side over the other); outside influence (75 percent felt the media were subject to these influences); inaccuracy (67 percent); and the media’s fascination with stories that the respondents deemed unimportant (65 percent). These numbers, Pew added, were either at or near all-time highs. But within these numbers there is something interesting. While no one seems to love the MSM the way they did back in the 1960s and 1970s, Republicans like them a lot less than Democrats do. Gallup found that 55 percent of Democrats continue to trust the media, but that trust is shared by only 32 percent of Republicans. And Pew found another partisan disparity, and one significant anti-MSM cavil: Democrats still believe that the press protects democracy rather than harms it, 59 percent to 27 percent, while Republicans believe news organizations hurt rather than help, 46 percent to 43 percent. So basically, a plurality of Republicans has ceased to believe in what had always been one of the primary functions of the media: to serve the democratic process. This is important because while Republicans have worked tirelessly to destroy the public’s confidence in government – to the point where government now barely functions – they also have been working to destroy public confidence in the idea of an objective media. This has perhaps been a more subtle effort, but it is one with equally profound implications for our political life. We know why Republicans did this: they have an impossible time with fact and truth. But if you destroy belief in objectivity, you destroy the media’s ability to successfully examine and criticize. The embrace of illogic and unreason – everything from climate change denial to birtherism — by huge numbers of Republicans is facilitated by the fact that there is, in the public’s mind, no credible instrument to challenge them. And unfortunately, rather than push back and defend the ideal of objectivity, the press have caved by substituting balance instead, which in practice simply means that you treat both sides equally whether they’re equal or not. Remember, Fox News’ slogan has been “fair and balanced,” not “honest and objective.” So, yes, in their own suicidal way the press has contributed to the level of distrust, but nowhere near as much as Republican elites. Georgetown University professor Jonathan M. Ladd, in his 2011 book Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters, discovered that the Republican elite’s criticism of the media was more responsible than any other factor in denigrating the media among educated conservative Republicans. (For Democrats, it was the abundance of tabloid-style coverage.)
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