A huge swath of the public has lost faith in the objectivity and reliability of major news networks. Can anything be done about it?
In a country of roughly 330 million people, only around 700,000 tune in to watch CNN on any given night during primetime anymore.
This wasn’t always the case. On a time, not all that long ago, CNN was considered by millions of Americans- maybe even most of them- to be the gold-standard for reliable news networks.
When Republicans groused at the close of the George W. Bush presidency that mainstream media outlets, including CNN, were becoming more and more biased against conservatives, most moderate voters dismissed their concerns as mere politicizing.
Then Barack Obama was elected President and the way reputable news outlets covered his presidency was…different. It can’t be said, by anybody, that the mainstream press did no fawning whatsoever over President Barack Obama during his two terms in office.
This was true after Obama was dubbed the “War President”. It was true as the media scrambled to explain why economic growth remained anemic during his presidency. It was especially true after The Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, explaining in detail just how thoroughly President Obama- like Presidents before and after him- had misled the public on American military success in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan Papers were the written portion of that particular test and four successive Presidential Administrations did not receive high marks. This week was the lab and it must be admitted that even the Afghanistan Papers failed to prepare the American people for just how little success we ever really had in Afghanistan.
The American people had to wait until the end of Obama’s term for some hard-hitting journalism of the kind they were soon to enjoy in excess over the next four years.
There is no comparison between the press coverage of Barack Obama and that enjoyed by Donald Trump.
Failures of the Trump Administration? How diligently the press networks counted the ways, sometimes faster than they could be verified.
Some of them are still counting. With record-setting inflation setting in, consumer confidence falling, Americans paying higher prices for everything, COVID-19 variants, crime on the rise, Afghanistan on fire, California on fire and a category five crisis at the U.S. Southern border, the Boston Globe is still doggedly talking about Trump’s taxes.
The Boston Globe thinks the average, working-class voter cares more about an ex-President’s tax returns than they do about whether or not their children will be able to attend in-person public school this fall. It is this type of out-of-touch elitism which is putting Governor Gavin Newsom in dire danger of losing his job to a conservative Republican in California where Republicans compose only 24% of the population.
At the close of the Trump presidency, even the staunchest, most loyal progressive voter- to the left of Jane Fonda- would admit, freely, that the press is biased against Republicans in general and Donald Trump in particular. The fact doesn’t bother them overmuch. In their opinion, journalists trying to help advance Democratic Party policies and stymie Republican ones are doing a great public service.
The new, urgent narrative in 2016- stopping the essential threat posed by Trump- became the news. Objectivity, that platinum standard for news reliability went out the window.
And Donald Trump was news.
From the precipitous drop in cable news ratings over the past year since Donald Trump left office, we catch a glimpse of just what Trump meant to our commentariat: Money.
Trump, who after decades in L.A. and New York City rubbing shoulders with the Democratic elite, who was so long a registered Democrat himself, became, after all those years, a unique threat to mankind according to authorities in the press.
For journalists, the urgent need to insert that opinion, that overarching narrative into every story-and especially into which stories are covered- is a trap they were always bound to fall in eventually.
Opinions are often wrong.
The law of averages insists that some of the opinions held by the most intelligent, educated and experienced among us can still be wrong.
Even popular opinions, which you and everyone else you know share, can be wrong. Plenty of popular opinions have been proven wrong in the fullness of time.
Trying to get others to share your opinion, if you are a journalist, is an even trickier bet. To do that, you will need to be persuasive. You need stories that grab attention, incense readers, spur them into action.
And just like that, clickbait became the entire business model of the media industry.
Reporters used to get into the business to report the facts, some believing those facts would make society better by educating citizens about current events. Choosing which facts to report to serve an overarching narrative is bound to be a losing game, unless media moderators get it right all the time- which they don’t.
As a business model, it isn’t failing so much as failed.
Already, audiences for once-mainstream media outlets which have since turned leftward have dwindled to a fraction of what they once were. As the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, once noted: “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
Too right they do.
They watch tv also, or don’t; they tune into sports events, or they don’t.
Increasingly, they don’t.
We no longer live in a country where members of both political parties watch the same news networks, read the same newspapers, or even look at the same news websites.
Each party is preaching to their own choir of friendly media outlets now, which is fine; but all that persuasive news coverage is like the proverbial tree falling in the woods. CNN is talking; only progressives are listening.
Democrats currently holding the reigns of power in Washington would very much like the public’s help on a number of important initiatives. There are plenty of great PSA’s currently playing during commercial breaks on all your favorite news programs; CNN, MSNBC, NBC.
Conservatives aren’t hearing a word of it. They’ve long ago turned the channel, stopped watching. Conservative news consumers have made new Matt Drudges, new Andrew Breitbarts. Moderate, independent and libertarian news consumers have a parthenon of their own trusted news sources now too, and none of them is exactly mainstream; Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibii, Bari Weiss, Joe Rogan.
There is only one way major news networks can restore their collapsed credibility and appeal again to a wider audience again: Facts.
Reporting just the facts, while making no inferences, also means releasing the need to control the outcome of reporting. The factual report doesn’t need to do anything but inform. Informing is not the same thing as persuading.
Everyone likes to be informed. Few want to be persuaded of anything.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)