America's Lost Faith in the NewsRoundup
tags: News, media, journalism, Civic Culture
Louis Menand has contributed to The New Yorker since 1991, and has been a staff writer since 2001. His book “The Metaphysical Club” was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. His book “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War” was published in 2021 and named a notable book of the year by the New York Times Book Review.
When the Washington Post unveiled the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” on February 17, 2017, people in the news business made fun of it. “Sounds like the next Batman movie,” the New York Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, said. But it was already clear, less than a month into the Trump Administration, that destroying the credibility of the mainstream press was a White House priority, and that this would include an unabashed, and almost gleeful, policy of lying and denying. The Post kept track of the lies. The paper calculated that by the end of his term the President had lied 30,573 times.
Almost as soon as Donald Trump took office, he started calling the news media “the enemy of the American people.” For a time, the White House barred certain news organizations, including the Times, CNN, Politico, and the Los Angeles Times, from briefings, and suspended the credentials of a CNN correspondent, Jim Acosta, who was regarded as combative by the President. “Fake news” became a standard White House response—frequently the only White House response—to stories that did not make the President look good. There were many such stories.
Suspicion is, for obvious reasons, built into the relationship between the press and government officials, but, normally, both parties have felt an interest in maintaining at least the appearance of cordiality. Reporters need access so that they can write their stories, and politicians would like those stories to be friendly. Reporters also want to come across as fair and impartial, and officials want to seem coöperative and transparent. Each party is willing to accept a degree of hypocrisy on the part of the other.
With Trump, all that changed. Trump is rude. Cordiality is not a feature of his brand. And there is no coöperation in the Trump world, because everything is an agon. Trump waged war on the press, and he won, or nearly won. He persuaded millions of Americans not to believe anything they saw or heard in the non-Trumpified media, including, ultimately, the results of the 2020 Presidential election.
The press wasn’t silenced in the Trump years. The press was discredited, at least among Trump supporters, and that worked just as well. It was censorship by other means. Back in 1976, even after Vietnam and Watergate, seventy-two per cent of the public said they trusted the news media. Today, the figure is thirty-four per cent. Among Republicans, it’s fourteen per cent. If “Democracy Dies in Darkness” seemed a little alarmist in 2017, the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, made it seem prescient. Democracy really was at stake.
That we need a free press for our democracy to work is a belief as old as our democracy. Hence the First Amendment. Without the free circulation of information and opinion, voters will be operating in ignorance when they choose whom to vote for and what policies to support. But what if the information is bad? What if you can’t trust the reporter? What if there’s no such thing as “the facts”?
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