It’s become a received wisdom of sorts that the media failed to grasp Donald Trump’s rise in 2016 ahead of time because “the press [took] him literally, but not seriously; his supporters [took] him seriously, but not literally.” Too focused on Trump’s penchant for drastic, incoherent, or blatantly false statements, the news media did not understand how well his messages resonated among many voters, and why. With Trump in the White House, the media are certainly taking him seriously, but covering him has not become any easier. If anything, it’s become more challenging as Trump has stepped up his attacks on the press.
Journalists across the country are reckoning with this situation. On October 23, 2017, I attended “Trump vs. the Media,” a public panel discussion on the challenges that journalists face in the Trump era, hosted by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. The panel consisted of Sabrina Siddiqui, a political reporter for the Guardian US, and Ben Domenech, the founder and publisher of the Federalist, a conservative-leaning online magazine. David Corn, Washington bureau chief of the progressive magazine Mother Jones, acted as moderator.
The key takeaway from the discussion: In the Trump era, political journalists face the twin challenges of covering a president whose relationship with facts is famously troubled, and who consistently attempts to undermine the press. The challenges are linked in two ways: First, journalists are still very much in the process of coming to terms with them and finding ways to counteract them – at least if Siddiqui, Domenech, and Corn are any indication. Second, both challenges should have us worried about the state of U.S. democracy.
Why are falsehoods spread by Trump and his administration a headache for journalists? For one, there’s the matter of sheer volume: As of November 13, Trump had made 1,628 false and misleading claims since taking office – an average of more than five per day. As the panelists pointed out, this stretches the media’s resources thin, meaning that less time is spent explaining underlying, newsworthy developments that have been overshadowed by whatever Trump has said about them. In other words, the opportunity cost of fact-checking is immense.
However, the panelists missed a more important point. Journalists may see it as their professional duty to fact-check and correct demonstrably false claims. However, if the goal is to prevent readers from being swayed by misleading information, fact-checking is of woefully little use. A 2017 study on voters in France, for instance, came to the sobering conclusion that “fact checking improves factual knowledge of voters, but does not have an impact on voters’ policy conclusions or support” for a candidate. Researchers found that when they exposed voters to false claims about immigration made by far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, those voters became more likely to support Le Pen. Whether the claims were shown along with a fact-check or not made practically no difference. In fact, even voters who were given nothing but actual facts on immigration became more supportive of Le Pen.
This is the salience effect at work: Covering a topic like immigration increases the salience of that topic as a political issue in voters’ minds. As a result, they become more open to a candidate who talks at length about this issue. The actual content and valence of the coverage that they read remain incidental.
This does not mean that there is no place for fact-checking. But it complicates the idea that the news media can provide a simple corrective to Trump’s false claims through fact checking. This means that any wall-to-wall coverage of Trump – critical or not – is a fraught undertaking. However, as Guardian reporter Sabrina Siddiqui pointed out, the news media are unlikely to heed this advice, for simple reasons of market demand. This was perhaps best summed up by CBS chairman Les Moonves, who in 2016 joked that “[Trump’s run] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Why does this matter for democracy? After all, being well-informed is not a legal prerequisite for voting. And as one contributor to this blog has pointed out, the tactic of intentionally misleading voters can be seen as just one among many tools in the unforgiving world of politics.
The problem with this view is that Trump and his administration have not simply used falsehoods and so-called alternative facts to influence voter preferences. Instead, false claims are used in no small part to discredit the media and any critical reporting. This explains why the administration tends to brand media reports that question the accuracy of its alternative facts as agenda-driven “fake news.” The implication is clear: The administration is not simply stating alternative facts that exist alongside those of the fact-checkers. Instead, the “fake news” label implies a claim to monopoly over truth, which the press must not contest. If, like political scientist Robert Dahl, you accept the idea that democracy requires alternative sources of information to allow voters to form and articulate their preferences, Trump’s claim that the news media are “the enemy of the people” should trouble you. As journalist David Corn put it at the Watson Institute event, it is nothing if not “a creeping element of authoritarianism.”
Corn went on to soften this gloomy statement somewhat by pointing out that Trump’s verbal attacks may not be particularly effective. Recent opinion polling suggests that public confidence in print media and television news is up from mid-2016, while approval of the presidency and of Donald Trump has been decreasing. This suggests that branding media outlets as fake news has at least not been successful enough to erode the public’s trust in them – quite to the contrary.
However, the polls also suggest that this popular verdict is split along partisan lines. Trust in the media is up among Democrats, but the opposite is true for Republicans, who have been growing more skeptical of television news and print publications, albeit by smaller margins. If Trump’s attacks on the media are primarily meant to undermine the media’s reach among his own base, there’s a strong case to be made that this strategy is working – and a strong case that this does not bode well for democracy in the U.S.
Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0