Restoring public faith in the U.S. mainstream media again

IMHO, one of the biggest reasons Trump was able to win in 2016, and lose by a narrower margin than expected last year, was because U.S. public trust and faith in mainstream media has cratered to an all-time low.

Long gone are the days of Walter Cronkite. The lack of faith in mainstream media drove millions of Americans to Parler, social media, Fox (which up until recently was firmly in the Trump camp,) etc. which then allowed echo chambers to sprout and persist. The notion that “the mainstream media is lying to us, and they’re biased” increasingly gained a firm foothold, and fanned the flames of QAnon and Trump’s support.

Despite Biden’s win, the Democrats are looking at facing Trump 2.0, Trump 3.0 opponents in the years ahead - and perhaps, in fact, maybe even losing again to a like-Trump-but-savvier candidate in 2024 or 2028 if the public doesn’t regain faith in the media again.

Any hope that we could bring back something like the FCC Fairness Doctrine and that that would help?

I suspect part of the problem is that we’ve lost a lot of our trust in authority in general. We don’t trust the People In Charge (mainly the government, but also business and religious leaders) to tell us the truth, play fair, and do what they’re supposed to be doing.

Why no mention of the vast right wing campaign to destroy the then-acceptable sources of news and information and replace it with highly prejudiced political hackery, Velocity?

Don’t see how. Even if it was a good idea (and I’m of the opinion all it would do is give us even more “both sides” crap), the FCC only has any control over broadcast when it comes to content. Cable would be a hard thing to get people to agree to, the Internet would be functionally impossible to control without a forced Chinese-style filter.

The question is why “the public” has lost faith in the mainstream media. My hypothesis is that what has really happened is that conservative leaning voters, AKA “the public”, have collectively decided that they would rather live in an echo chamber than to hear the truth. I won’t sit here and proclaim that newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, radio like NPR, network TV like ABC, NBC, CBS, and cable TV like CNN always get it right. I’m not even going to pretend that these media outlets don’t have a liberal bias. The underlying issue, however, is not that these media outlets have decided they want to be homers for the Democratic Party. The treatment of Obama back in his day, and the treatment of Biden currently, show that this is not the case. The fundamental issue is that reality has a liberal bias. Conservatives are in denial about this fact, and as David Frum said, “If conservatives become convinced they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism, the will abandon democracy.” Not only have they abandoned democracy, they have abandoned reality. Everything from denial of climate change, to denial of racism in police departments across the US, to believing that tax cuts for the wealthy will fix the problems of ordinary Americans, to various forms of denial about the COVID-19 pandemic (refusing to wear masks, conspiracies about the vaccines, conspiracies about the origin of the pandemic, etc.), to believing all kinds of crazy things about 5G. I could go on all day about all sorts of things where conservatives will deny reality, much less democracy. That is the fundamental issue.

The only way I can see to overcome this is to beat them over the head with a long enough string of electoral defeats that they finally have to give up on their collective denial. Forcing legitimate news outlets to report actual fake news in the name of being “fair and balanced” will just make things worse.

Does the OP have any opinions about the open war on media by right wing interests, or are we just supposed to ignore that they exist when we look for solutions?

As to “restoring public faith in the U.S. mainstream media”, that horse left the barn long ago, the barn burned down and the well has been thoroughly poisoned. With all the alternative media and social media outlets available, far fewer people depend on the major networks and “national” newspapers, instead choosing whatever platform reinforces their beliefs. I was sad to see the Fairness Doctrine go, but it doesn’t have relevance in today’s media age.

Reporters and editors would do well to stop thinking of themselves as the Flaming Sword of Truth and limit the infiltration of personal beliefs into news coverage. Networks should cut back on the smarmy mutual grooming that characterizes panel discussions and instead reintroduce hard-hitting editorials, as in Cronkite’s day while keeping editorializing strictly segregated from news coverage.

But it’s not going to happen.

If this is true of liberals, it’s true to a much smaller extent than it is of conservatives. I’ll use myself as a sample of one for the liberal side. Yes, I read some news online, but just because I reach a NYT or NBC article from my Facebook page rather than reading a dead tree paper or watching Lester Holt at 5:30 PM on an old rabbit ear TV doesn’t change the content of the news I’m consuming. What are these liberal platforms that liberals are supposedly using to reinforce their own beliefs? I know there’s some reportedly left leaning channel on Sirius XM, but from what I gather very few people listen to it. I know of no liberal equivalent to Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Greg Kelly, Jeannine Pirro, Lou Dobbs, Glen Beck, the late Rush Limbaugh, and so on. Where exactly does a liberal go for a platform that reinforces their beliefs? I just be looking in the wrong places, because other than the occasional obscure radio station or self publishing left leaning rag, I don’t really know of any such sources.

I think that these kinds of statements and the attitudes they represent, vilifying and placing all the blame on conservatives, even if justified/true, are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Restoring public faith in the U.S. mainstream media, if that’s possible, would require having a mainstream media that the majority of conservatives and the majority of liberals felt was treating their positions fairly.

I’ve been reading How the Right Lost Its Mind, written by an anti-Trump conservative. He blames the rise of the modern right-wing media at least partly on liberal bias in the mainstream media.

Whether this is right or fair, it’s believed by the kind of people you have to win over if you want to restore public faith in the U.S. mainstream media again.

If I am correct, and reality has a liberal bias, then why should a legitimate news organization change? I consider myself an empiricist first, and if I’m wrong about reality having a liberal bias, I’ll look at the evidence and change my position to whatever the evidence indicates. That being said, I have yet to see such evidence. On issues like climate change, COVID-19, racial bias in police forces across the US, etc., the facts support the liberal position. What option does the New York Times, or CBS, or 538, or any other mainstream news outlet, have on their reporting on these issues? Should they be interviewing global warming denialists, people that claim that wearing a mask doesn’t help prevent the spread of COVID-19 or that COVID-19 is just a hoax, psychiatrists that claim that homosexuality is a mental illness, young earth creationists, police officers that claim that a mass shooter was just having a bad day, people that claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, and so on? How would that be of any kind of benefit?

ETA: To further support my position, let’s consider the timing of the rise of the conservative media. It started with people like Rush Limbaugh and the rise of Fox News in the 80s and early 90s. Coincidentally this is the time period when conservatives began abandoning reality. Compare the positions of Dwight Eisenhower and even Richard Nixon, who despite being a criminal recognized the need to protect the environment and of dealing with China in a less adversarial way vs. the current positions of the Republican Party. It isn’t that Lester Holt is more liberal than Dan Rather was, who was in turn more liberal than Walter Cronkite. It’s that the Republican Party of Eisenhower was more reality based than the Republican Party of George Bush Sr., who in turn was more reality based than the Republican Party of Trump.

Those are issues that have been needlessly politicized. The kinds of issues you mention are not so much ones where there is a conflict between fundamental, traditional conservative positions and values and fundamental liberal positions and values.

It’s probably unfortunate that it was Al Gore who championed the movement against climate change, because he, was a prominent Democratic politician, made people think of it as a political, Democratic issue.

I don’t want to use the word “conservative” as a synonym for “member of the Republican party as it currently exists in the U.S.” I think the word ought to mean something; but the G.O.P. nowadays doesn’t seem to stand for anything.

It stands for winning at all costs, violence not accepted. The overthrow of a republic democracy is a doddle compered to that.

Once you’ve said that, then everything else you’re saying is moot.

Even if all your claims about reality having a liberal bias were true (which they’re not) it would be irrelevant. Because the media can get away with dismissing far out claims and positions as long as they’re doing it in an even-handed way. Once they treat one side differently than another, then they’ve lost the audience, and even to the extent that they’re simply being more reality-based, the audience won’t trust that this is the case.

So let’s say, for example, that the MSM repeatedly emphasizes and reports as fact that there is no evidence for widespread electoral fraud in the 2020 presidential election. You might say that that’s simply reality-based, and you’d be right. But does the audience trust that it’s reality-based? Well that depends on how even-handed the MSM is in reporting on other issues. If they’re perceived as being tilted to the left, then that gives room for people to assume that perhaps there is evidence of widespread fraud and this is just another example of the media leaning left.

If the media labels 12,000 Trump statements as “lies” and 2,000 of them are outright lies and/or idiotic detached-from-reality statements, but the other 10,000 are just legitimate differences of opinion, conflicting expert opinion, typical politician hyperbole etc., then many readers just get inured to the term “lied” as applied to Trump and assume that it may or may not simply be the left-wing press.

And so on. The one and only way for the media to regain trust is to actually stop being biased. However, given the political breakdown of journalists, I don’t know if this is possible. And given the nature of politics these days, I don’t know if they even want to try.

I’ll again emphasize that the primary responsibility of the news media is to be biased in favor of what is factual. It just so happens that to hold conservative positions require believing things that aren’t true to a much greater extent than holding liberal positions. My hypothesis is that this is what causes the bias. Now it could very well be that I’m in an echo chamber without realizing it, but that brings up some questions.

  1. What news sources can I seek out that aren’t biased?

  2. Why should the media stop being biased, as long as the reason for that bias is because the facts favor one side over the other? Should the media report “alternate facts” in order to be “fair and balanced?”

The first question is asked without any snark. I’m not sure what news sources you would point to as being less biased. Maybe those from another country. Television such as Al Jazeera or the BBC? The main newspapers from other countries, maybe those from Auckland or Sydney, or for someone who can read Spanish, which I can, maybe those from Madrid or Mexico City?

The second question is asked with some snark, but still needs to be addressed. If a media organization seeks to lessen their bias, but the facts on the ground, such as with the 2020 election winner, favor the position held by one side rather than other, what is that media organization to do to lessen that bias? Again, I’m more than happy to consider actual facts that I may have overlooked or may be ignored by the mainstream media that support the underlying basis for holding a conservative position.

ETA: The reason I highlited that portion is to address this specific example. Is there evidence to suggest that only 1/6 of what the MSM called Trump lies turns out to not be Trump lying?

I’m not aware of any (which is not to say that there aren’t any, just that I’m not aware of them if they exist).

The only hope is to either look at a spectrum of sources and try to make the best sense of it, or to focus on sources which are in opposition to your natural inclinations. I myself utilize mostly the latter approach - I’m conservative and I rarely read any RW media. (FTR, ISTM that the RW media is more biased to the right than the MSM is biased to the left, but that’s not to say that the MSM is not also biased.)

I thought I was clear on this, but perhaps not.

If the media was even-handed and more neutral in other areas, then they would be more trusted when they treat unambiguous cases unambiguously. If they’re biased on the whole, then they’re not going to have that trust even in cases when they’re calling it as it is.

The 1/6 ratio was chosen at random. It was an illustration.

I believe I was the one being unclear, as with the issue with Trump’s statements. To be more specific, the question is with what issues is the media not calling it as it is? What are some of Trump’s statements that were labelled at lies when they in fact were not lies? What other newsworthy topics are the mainstream media reporting the liberal side to be true even though the underlying facts do not support such reporting? Global warming? COVID-19? Racism and the various particular instances such as the George Floyd death and general situations such as discrimination in hiring? I’ve admitted that the MSM is biased toward the liberal side of things. But is it unfairly biased due to ignoring or misrepresenting facts, and if so, what are some examples?

Off the top of my head, the only recent example I can recall is the case of the white high school student who was unfairly portrayed as harassing a Native American man during some protests in Washington. What are some other examples?

Flik, I agree that a substantial number of things (such as most science, climate-issues, healthcare, prison-reform, etc.) have a liberal bias. It’s a reason I’ve shifted further and further left over the past few years. But I think the main thing driving public distrust of the U.S. mainstream media these days isn’t so much partisan bias as it is that the media now thrives on division, clicks, sensationalism, hysteria, rush-to-publish, anger, disgust, gotchas and smut in a way that it didn’t before.

As Roger Ebert said about Cronkite:

" “It was a more straightforward time. The news was the news, and we believed those who reported it to us. They were sometimes mistaken, but they were sincere, and we felt they could be trusted. On television, CBS News was the gold standard, and Cronkite was the man who stood behind it, worthy of comparison with the icon Edward R. Murrow. When he left the air, something else was already leaving the air: A sense of probity, of caution, of fact-checking, of restraint and decency. What did he make of these latter years of breathless nonstop around-the-clock cable news, with its shouters, its opinions, its fake teases, its blizzards of computer graphics, its obsession with trashy lives led in public? He was 92 when he died. Will we ever again have a newsman who can be described as “the most trusted man in America?” Part of our history has passed. He was a link to the standards and values of a better time, when ratings did not drive television and shape it to their will, and the average American was not only assumed to be interested in serious news coverage–but was.”

This brings me back to my original point. I think that conservatives (in general, certainly not true in all instances) have reached a point where they no longer want to hear the truth. As far as I can tell, the same isn’t true of liberals. I haven’t stopped reading the New York Times or watching CNN just because they reported that Joe Biden is also locking kids up in cages, or that he fired some people in his administration because they used marijuana, or that several women have accused Andrew Cuomo of sexual assault. I’m not calling those reports fake news just because they are negative reports about politicians of the party that I favor. If an elected Democrat does something wrong, I want to know about. I won’t call the news source fake news just because they show my side in a negative light. It seems to me that conservative thought does boil down to that. If I agree with it, it has to be true, and if I disagree with it it’s fake news. I don’t see how a legitimate news organization can deal with that kind of thinking.

I don’t think it’s possible to discuss this in terms of “examples” without going through a liberal-conservative debate on every single one of these issues. I don’t think I’m up for that. I was making a more general point about the fact that some things are more clear-cut than others, and if the media loses credibility by being biased on the “others”, then they lose credibility even when things are more clear-cut.

But perhaps we can try this. If you think back to all the cases where the MSM jumped the gun and then had to walk back their reporting, or cases where the MSM was found to have misrepresented the evidence and facts or reported things out of context and had to similarly retract their earlier reporting, do you think those are 50/50 in terms of reporting which supported RW vs LW positions/people? Or is it almost always the case that initial anti-RW reporting had to be walked back when more facts came out?

I agree that some people simply can’t be helped - if they insist on plugging their ears, you can’t unplug them.

But according to the linked articles, 43 percent of Democrats don’t trust the mainstream media anymore either. If the media were solely about reporting facts in an honest, decent way, and conservatives just couldn’t handle the unpleasant truth, then you’d probably see some gap like “10 percent of conservatives trust the media while 90 percent of liberals do.” But the fact that four-out-of-ten Democrats can’t trust the media suggests that there’s some trashiness about the way the media does things that is turning people away.