On October 5, President Trump gave a news conference on the state of the recent election. At that time, Biden had been leading in key states and it appeared that his victory was imminent. However, in an unprecedented move in US history, during the news conference President Trump made baseless claims about the legitimacy of the election and voter fraud. At that time, the three big broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – cut away from the president’s conference. “We have to interrupt here, because the president made a number of false statements, including the notion that there has been fraudulent voting,” said Lester Holt, the “NBC Nightly News” anchor. He added, “There has been no evidence of that.”
The move to cut away from the president’s speech was a bold challenge to him, but at the same time it demonstrated the media’s crucial role in democracy. In a functioning democracy, the media acts as an important third-party source of information for the public. “First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. Second, information serves a “checking function” by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them.” The cutting away from the president’s conference is an example of this “checking function” by the media.
A free and independent media is crucial to the security of a democracy. In countries facing severe democratic erosion, the would-be autocrat nearly always attacks or attempts to control the media such as the case with Peru’s Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori used the wealth and power at his disposal to emasculate much of the country’s media by relying on his secret police chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, to induce compliance through the bribery and blackmail of Peru’s most important media owners. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has undertaken a similar approach to the media using surrogates and economic pressure to induce compliance in the media. While Trump has not taken such bold actions against the media, he himself is infamous for his frequent attacking and calling of media networks that criticize him as “fake news.”
The October 5th cutaway isn’t the only recent stand the media has taken against Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric. Trump, a very active user on the social media platform Twitter, has come under fire for recent false tweets such as saying, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!!!” Twitter has taken to posting warning labels on some of his tweets which warn readers that the information posted is disputed and may be untrue. Twitter has even made clear that Trump will lose his special privileges as a world leader once he is out of office, which would allow him to be banned from the platform if he continues his current behavior.
However, there is a negative element to the media taking a pro-democracy and by extension somewhat anti-Trump stance. In the eyes of some citizens, the media standing against Trump’s election claims is indicative of so-called “Big Media” attempting to discredit him and falls right into Trump’s “fake media” rhetoric. The more the media does to protect democracy and its institutions from a would-be autocrat, the more his supporters believe the media to be lying and deceitful.
Polling has found that public trust in media organizations has been in decline. A Pew survey on media credibility found that “virtually every news organization or program has seen its credibility marks decline.” Another study by the Hollywood Reporter and Morning Consult found that over the course of the Trump presidency, perception of the media has further dropped, especially among Republicans who are on average less likely to view the surveyed media outlets as credible. It would be difficult to say that Trumps constant attack of the media was not somewhat responsible for the sharp decline demonstrated by Republican voters in the figure below.
These results have dangerous implications for democracy. If American’s fail to trust the media and instead look to other less reliable or biased sources for information, there would be a decline in the knowledge of citizens on public issues. Democracy necessitates having well-informed citizens in order to make good judgements in voting for officials and policy. Free and fair elections conducted through transparent processes require a media sector which gives candidates equal access, and reports the relevant issues in a timely, objective manner. So, while the media’s recent defense of democracy is justified, it should be wary of the growing negative perception among Americans.
 Center for Democracy and Governance, “The Role of Media in Democracy: A Strategic Approach,” Technical Publication Series, June 1999, 3.
 Scott Gehlbach, “Reflections on Putin and the Media,” Post-Soviet Affairs 26, no. 1 (January 2010): 85, https://doi.org/10.2747/1060-586X.26.1.77.
 Gehlbach, 86.
 Center for Democracy and Governance, “The Role of Media in Democracy: A Strategic Approach,” 3.
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