The Echo Chamber Era
Trust in media is down, but if journalists don't listen to critics anyway, why should they care?
A day after Joe Biden's inauguration, the headline in Axios read: “Trust in media hits a new low.” Felix Salmon wrote that “for the first time ever, fewer than half of all Americans have trust in traditional media.” The Edelman survey showed overall faith in the press dropping to 46%.
The traditional explanation for this phenomenon is that Republicans hate the press a lot, but Democrats just a little. The Axios story bore this out somewhat, as only 18% of Republicans reported trusting media, versus 57% of Democrats.
Still, 57% of half your potential audience is nothing to brag about, when you’re in the trust business. Other numbers, like 56% of respondents believing journalists are “purposely trying to mislead people,” or 58% thinking that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology… than with informing the public" are more ominous.
Media critics who work in the corporate press, like Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post, seem determined to look everywhere but inward for solutions. The dominant legend in our business is that if Republicans believe in fairy tales like Q and “Stop the Steal,” the traditional press can do nothing but stand its ground.
Sullivan’s reaction to at-times “embarrassing” Inauguration Day coverage was an injunction to reporters to resist the temptation to try to appear more balanced by showing “toughness” with regard to the incoming Biden regime. If anything, Sullivan said, the press should stand even taller in its opposition to red-state lie merchants like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, “without fearing that they’d be called partisan.”
Karen Attiah, the Post’s global opinions editor, took the same approach. She wrote that Trump had been caused in part by the media’s penchant for “balance” and “presenting both sides.” Going forward, it will therefore be necessary to work even harder avoid missteps like Politico’s much-criticized decision to publish Ben Shapiro, which Attiah decried as a decision defended with the “rusty armor of both-sidesism.”
It’s astonishing that after so many years of decline in trust in media — this phenomenon has been going on for over a decade now, something I first started noticing when I published The Great Derangement back in 2008 — media people still think the issue is a mathematical question of “sides,” with widespread audience revulsion a kind of reward for their unflinching correctitude.
Sullivan was a lot closer to the truth when she warned of being seduced by the return of a Biden administration that closely reflects “our values,” which she described as being like the world as represented in West Wing: celebrating “multiculturalism, a belief in the principles of liberal democracy, and a kind of wonky idealism.”
West Wing was General Hospital for rich white liberals, a seven-season love letter to the enlightened attitudes of the Bobo-in-Paradise demographic. If that’s the self-image of the national press, it’s no wonder they make people want to vomit. The coverage of Biden’s inauguration, another celebration of those attitudes, was an almost perfect mathematical inverse of late-stage Trump reporting, a monument to groveling sycophancy.
John Heileman at MSNBC compared Biden’s speech to Abe Lincoln’s second inaugural, and suggested that the sight of “the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Obamas” gathered for the event was like “the Marvel superheroes all back in one place” (this was not the first post-election Avengers comparison to be heard on cable). Rachel Maddow talked about going through “half a box of Kleenex” as she watched the proceedings. Chris Wallace on Fox said Biden’s lumbering speech was “the best inaugural address I ever heard,” John Kennedy’s “Ask Not” speech included. The joyful tone was set the night before by CNN’s David Challen, who said lights along the Washington Mall were like “extensions of Joe Biden’s arms embracing America.”
As these neo-Soviet ministrations spread across the airwaves, an opposite storyline was discarded. From the Capitol riot on, we’d been warned about a sequel act of violence by Trump supporters. On January 11th, ABC reported that an internal FBI memo had “received information about an unidentified armed group” planning a “huge uprising” if efforts were made to remove Donald Trump via the 25th Amendment, while protesters were planning to “storm” capitols in “all 50 states.”
We were shown how 25,000 National Guard troops were deployed to protect the capital, with attendant subplots about an unusual effort to politically screen those Guardsmen. "While we have no intelligence indicating an insider threat,” Defense Secretary Chris Miller said, “we are leaving no stone unturned in securing the capital.”
Beyond the 50-state threat, what if Trump just wouldn’t leave? That was the subject of countless stories across all four years of the Trump experience, with Vanity Fair’s “No One Knows How to Get Trump to Leave In January” being a typical example. They speculated that the Secret Service might have to pull an old landlord’s trick:
[The Secret Service] could also simply do the equivalent of changing the locks: “When the staff leaves on January 19, don’t let them back into the complex the next day,” an ex-agent said. “He can’t do anything without his staff.”
Should we worry about martial law? Before the inauguration, USA Today and multiple other outlets wondered what would happen if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act, especially after the CEO of My Pillow, Michael Lindell, was spotted entering the White House with a document full of notes that apparently contained suggestions for invoking military rule.
On Inauguration Day these stories melted away in silence. Trump and his wife Melania ditched the White House more or less without event Wednesday morning, unless one counts the unauthorized use of Village People hit “YMCA” as an exit tune (“it would seem his abusive use of our music has finally ended,” the band said in a statement). In localities around the country, there were but a few scattered reports about tiny or nonexistent demonstrations at state capitols:
In other cases, as in the instance of a gun-rights rally held at the Virginia State Capitol — many of whose attendees were apparently vocal opponents of Trump — livestream coverage by indy outlets like Jordan Chariton’s Status Coup was shut down, allegedly because it violated Google’s “firearms policy.”
Balance isn’t about giving credulous coverage or equal time to Donald Trump or Josh Hawley or Ben Shapiro (though I think it’s crazy for news organizations to cut off all conservatives), it’s about being consistent. If you tell us on January 12th that all 50 state capitols are under serious threat — I was genuinely worried — you have to tell us what happens at the end of the story a week later. Was that threat real but deterred? Was it overblown? What happened to all of those warnings?
This has been an ongoing theme of coverage in the Trump years: hyping a threat for a news cycle or two, then moving to the next panic as the basis for the first one dissipates. How many headlines were aimed at our outrage centers in the last four years that were quietly memory-holed, once they’d outlived their political utility? We read dozens of stories before the election warning that Russia was already interfering in the 2020 election. A smattering of New York Times headlines alone:
Lawmakers Are Warned That Russia Is Meddling to Re-elect Trump
Russia Continues Interfering in Election to Try to Help Trump, U.S. Intelligence Says
‘Chaos Is the Point’: Russian Hackers and Trolls Grow Stealthier in 2020
F.B.I. Warns of Russian Interference in 2020 Race and Boosts Counterintelligence Operations
Putin Most Likely Directing Election Interference to Aid Trump, C.I.A. Says
The Times almost weekly quoted people like the “American official” who said Russia was like a “tornado, capable of inflicting damage on American democracy now,” or FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said there was a “very active” campaign to influence the election and “denigrate Vice President Biden.”
Then Biden won the election, the story disappeared, and the near-immediate conclusion of the same New York Times was that the election had been “free of fraud.” They quoted the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency as saying the 2020 vote was “the most secure in American history,” and as for all of those pre-election scare stories?
A bipartisan consensus like this may tempt some people to conclude that the dire pre-election warnings were overblown, that the risks to the election were never that serious. The reality is the opposite…
Like the wider Trump-Russia story itself, which magically vanished from coverage before both the 2018 and 2020 election seasons, audiences were asked for a time to care about certain things as if their lives depended on it, then just as quickly asked to forget the issues ever came up. And they wonder why people feel manipulated?
We went through many of these episodes, from Bountygate to the “mass hysterectomies” story to the recent spate of “What if Trump blows up the universe?” scare-o-grams (Forbes, echoing the famed “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is Still Dead” construction, wrote the best of these, with “Enraged and Isolated, Donald Trump Still Has Sole Control of America’s Nukes”).
We were repeatedly told that revealing the name of this or that patriotic news source would “risk lives,” only to have those sources turn out to be people like paid DNC researcher Christopher Steele, the “informant” Stefan Halper (exposed as an FBI source in the press in the eighties), or Brookings Institution fellow Igor Danchenko, who produced the pee tape tale over “beers” at a conversation made in “jest” with a pal in Moscow. Needless to say, no lives were ever threatened, and in many of those cases — Steele’s especially — the rationale for keeping the person’s name and employer a secret was clearly corrupt.
Blue-state audiences didn’t ask for accounting for those official warnings for the same reason Trump voters never asked what happened to those three million undocumented votes Hillary Clinton supposedly won in 2016: audiences don’t demand explanations for puffed-up claims about other groups.
People like Sullivan would have you believe that “balance” is a mandate to give voice to clearly illegitimate points of view, but it’s really about not falling so completely in love with your “values” that you stop caring to avoid mistakes about those who don’t share them, or even just mistakes generally.
By any standard, the press had a terrible four years, from the mangling of dozens of Russiagate tales to scandals like the New York Times “Caliphate” disaster and the underappreciated Covington High School story fiasco. Still, many in the business can’t see how bad it’s been, because they’ve walled themselves off so completely from potential critics.
Coupled with the enhanced aggressiveness of Silicon Valley in removing dissenting accounts across the spectrum — Facebook is taking down six Socialist Workers Party accounts in Britain as I write this, a day after zapping a series of Antifa accounts — reporters at places like the Post, the Times, and CNN every day have less and less to worry about in terms of audience blowback, and they know it. Just in the first few days of the Biden administration, we’ve seen editorial decisions that would never have been attempted once upon a time.
The Post just tried to remove seven paragraphs of their own archived article about Vice President Kamala Harris, which contained a cringeworthy scene of Harris and her sister joking about prisoners begging for water, only to restore it after an outcry. CNN meanwhile ran a story that incoming Biden officials had to “build everything from scratch” with regard to Covid-19 policy because the Trump administration had no plan for vaccine distribution at all — not a bad or even a terrible plan, but literally a “nonexistent” plan, despite the fact that 36 million vaccines had already been delivered.
In this rare case, rival media organizations cried foul, with reporters from both Politico and the Washington Post blasting the report as untrue and a “gambit to lower expectations” by the incoming administration. In an atmosphere where editors really feared discontent from outside demographics or rival party politicians, a story like that, with an over-the-top-to-impossible premise, would never even be tried.
Competing voices and critics who’ll keep your newsroom at least theoretically honest are important, which is why the mass-deletions of alternative media accounts are so upsetting: it hugely enhances the likelihood of errors and cheap caricatures, as well as the belief in one’s infallibility. The fact that pundits and reporters are leading the charge for an ever-purer monoculture is beyond creepy. A tweet by Anand Giridharadas expressed what probably more than a few people in West Wing media-land are thinking these days:
It’s bad that trust in media is down, but even worse that so few in the business seem to think it’s a problem.