For years much fanfare has been made by the media against Congress on account of dismal approval ratings. Realclearpolitics.com and other major news outlets track various polling data, and what they have observed is widespread and continued disgust with the performance of elected officials. In 2014, for example, an all-time low was reached as approval for Congress sunk to single digits. Despite changes in Congressional leadership and a new president, current levels aren’t much better. In a recent video Arnold Schwarzenegger chastised Congress by claiming that hemorrhoids, the much maligned band Nickleback, cockroaches, and even herpes were more popular than they were.
What Realclearpolitics.com and top media outlets rarely report, however, is their own lack of popularity with the American people. As one of the few sources that engages in this assessment, Gallup reported in 2016 that American’s trust in mass media had hit its lowest point ever. According to Gallup the mass media’s 32% approval mark was the lowest since 1972, the first year such data was recorded. Similarly, a study commissioned by the Media Insight Project found that only 7% of Americans displayed a “great deal of trust” in mass media, a figure that stands only slightly above their opinion of Congress.
Despite such glaring signs of failure, you won’t hear major news networks pondering these figures often. Instead, many of the top media personalities assume an unquestioned role as the supreme arbiter of political debate. And yet this is exactly the role that President Trump has taken it upon himself to relentlessly question. In a recent press conference, for example, the president repeatedly took the media to task, called them dishonest and shameful, and afterwards named them “the opposition party” and “enemies of the American people.” Major news hosts from Fox’s Shepard Smith to CNN’s Jake Tapper balked at the suggestion, puzzling amongst themselves how anyone could believe this to be true.
But Gallup’s polling seems to support a popular justification for Trump's tone towards the press. The report demonstrating a sharp decline in Americans’ trust of the media notably spans age groups or political party. And Gallup admits that at least some of the more recent decline may be attributed to bias and the 2016 election in which the media was “hyper-focused on every controversial statement or policy proposal by Donald Trump” and “less focused on the controversies surrounding the Clinton campaign.”
While bias is an obvious concern, in actuality what many Americans resent is the media’s perceived self-importance and obvious sensitivity towards pushback. These attitudes have been on clear and particular display in the wake of Trump’s press conference. Guests on numerous media shows, for example, have claimed that “it is the responsibility of journalists is to report the truth” and have called it “wild” and “crazy” that Trump would dare not show respect for certain reporters. Joe Scarborough of MSNC even warned Trump, "don’t fight the press, the press always wins.”
Yet it is precisely this notion -- that an institution of American society is beyond reproach and cannot be argued with -- that Americans find distasteful. Republicans in particular have watched leaders such as George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney try to appease the media and then get skewered at the media’s hands. Trump’s strategy represents a marked departure from this appeasement, more in line with Ronald Reagan’s “I’m paying for this microphone!” toughness or Newt Gingrich’s 2012 lecture of John King. Trump’s particularly vicious approach has drawn blood from this vein, exposing an arrogance and self-righteousness now on full display.
This shouldn’t be cast as overlooking the real and important role of a free press, and most Americans citizens agree. Studies confirm that the very same Americans who disapprove of today’s media also value sound and reliable reporting. They judge the media based on very reasonable factors such as accuracy, completeness, presentation, and transparency. What they abhor, however, is a press corps that assumes exclusive rights to the truth rather than allowing Americans to determine it for themselves. They cannot stand, for example, major news networks who were so completely certain of Hillary Clinton’s presidential victory that they experienced shock when actual democracy occurred.
Rather than a press that “always wins,” Americans want to see a robust debate and interplay between the government and press. They do want to hear the media’s fact-checking and accusations of dishonesty against President Trump, but they also want to hear from Trump himself. That the president argues publicly and meets his challengers openly, albeit sloppily at times, is a major source of his appeal. While there are very serious repercussions if the press were to surrender, there is also a middle ground or “sweet spot” borne out of continued tension between the two.
That place is the one in which we regain our role as judges of the truth rather than having a media personality do it for us.