Trump Took a Wrecking Ball to Media Credibility—Can Biden Repair It?
Through years of gaslighting and lying, Trump and his cronies have done immeasurable damage to public trust in evidence-based reporting. What can be done to reverse it?
A few days after winning the 2016 election, Donald Trump—perhaps the most press-friendly, or rather press-addicted, political figure in recent American history—confided to CBS News’ Lesley Stahl his rationale for relentlessly attacking the mainstream media.
“You know why I do it?” the 45th president told the 60 Minutes correspondent. “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
Four years later, as Trump petulantly grapples with the inevitable, namely that Joe Biden will soon dislodge him from the Resolute Desk, he can legitimately claim at least one major triumph: His ceaseless barrage of “fake news,” “terrible reporter,” “wise-guy questions,” “third-rate,” “disgrace,” and “enemy of the American people”—a smear he first unleashed (via Twitter, of course) on Feb. 17, 2017—has done measurable, maybe irreversible, damage to the credibility of U.S. journalism.
The Gallup polling organization, which has been tracking public confidence in the news media since 1972, reports that only 10 percent of self-identified Republicans—a new low, representing an 11-point drop since 2018—answered that they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust and confidence “in the mass media—such as newspapers, TV and radio—when it comes to reporting the news fully, fairly and accurately,” to quote the question Gallup has been posing to respondents since well before the existence of the internet and social media.
While the overall proportion of Americans who disbelieve the news media—six in 10—has remained fairly stable since the end of President Barack Obama’s first term, Gallup’s survey shows that citizens’ perceptions of reality have become increasingly polarized and disconnected over the past four years. As the media’s credibility among Republicans plummeted, it rocketed from 51 to 73 percent among self-described Democrats. Among independents—the biggest cohort representing around 40 percent of Americans—it remained virtually unchanged at 36 percent (hardly a reassuring number).
Media scholar Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of The Elements of Journalism and executive director of the American Press Institute, said Trump has managed to lure reporters, editors, television correspondents, and network executives into a trap from which they’ve been incapable of escaping.
“Using the playbook of authoritarian despots, and the language of ‘you are the enemy of the people, and you are fake news, and you are the failing New York Times or the failing fill-in-the-blank,’ Trump is employing rhetoric that sets a trap for the press,” Rosenstiel told The Daily Beast. “And the trap is: ‘If I say you’re the enemy and you criticize me, you’ve proved my point. You’re on the wrong side of history and you’re failing and you’re fake. Everything you say is fake.’”
That tactic received something of a dry run on Jan. 11, 2017—nine days before the inauguration—when Vice President-elect Mike Pence and future White House press secretary Sean Spicer opened a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower with fervid denunciations of journalism in general and Buzzfeed (for publishing the notorious Steele Dossier) and CNN (for reporting that it existed) in particular.
In what was to become a ritualistic tradition of these pugilistic spectacles, Trump himself advised CNN’s pushy White House correspondent Jim Acosta: “Not you—your organization is terrible!… Don’t be rude. I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news!”
In his first formal White House press briefing the day after the inauguration, Spicer consolidated the Trump strategy of lying and gaslighting the Fourth Estate when he took the podium in an ill-fitting suit and, without taking a single question, raged at the assembled journalists for reporting accurately that the 45th president’s crowd on the Mall had been substantially smaller than Obama’s.
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration! Period! Both in person and around the globe!” Spicer yelled—never mind estimates, backed up by aerial photographs, that around 250,000 people had attended Trump’s inauguration (compared to nearly two million who showed up for Obama’s in 2009), while Nielsen numbers indicated that there was also a falloff in television viewers.
“Jaw meet floor,” tweeted New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush, reflecting the general press corps reaction of impotent shock and dismay.
As the Trump strategy solidified, Rosenstiel said, journalists increasingly found themselves in an impossible situation: “If you’ve been called ‘the enemy of the people,’ and now you’re easy on Trump or you’re intimidated, you look like you’re a cowardly journalist. And if you are aggressive and very critical of Trump, he says, ‘See, you’ve proved my point.’”
In other words, more than any modern president, Trump successfully created the context—indeed, reimagined the laws of PR physics—by which journalists and journalism rise and fall in the public’s estimation. That, of course, threatens the viability of a democracy.
“I think Trump has done more damage to evidence-based, fact-driven thinking among the public more than he has damaged evidence-based, fact-driven journalism,” said former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno, a longtime media and public affairs scholar at George Washington University.
While national outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post have thrived as businesses and purveyors of quality journalism during the Age of Trump, Sesno argued, “he has infected the public. Trump’s poison has coursed through the veins of public opinion to further undermine confidence in the media among a subset of the population—meaning a lot of the folks on the right.”
“We’re in a real pickle,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “I don’t know how we’re going to survive as a nation when people—even when presented with verifiable facts—don’t believe it.”
The COVID-19 and mask-wearing denialism among many Trump supporters “just blows my mind,” said Dalglish, who noted that several of her relatives back in Minnesota have either died after contracting the novel coronavirus or are hospitalized, breathing on a ventilator.
“Part of where we got here is you had the president standing up and saying ‘fake news, fake news, fake news,’” Dalglish said. “I don’t think he was motivated toward this result. I think he didn’t know what kind of result he was going to get. He just wanted to make fun of the media and throw people off track. I don’t think he necessarily expected to achieve a result this big and this frightening.”
Dalglish cited the Trump-era proliferation of “hyperpartisan news sites”—such as Breitbart, Infowars or Gateway Pundit—“that, in the vacuum of independent journalism like a traditional newspaper or a traditional radio or TV station, are basically public relations machines.” This malign phenomenon especially persists on the local level, she said.
Dalglish continued: “They’re engaging in massive confirmation bias, and a lot of people are getting their information from these sites that they believe conform with whatever their viewpoint is. They are substituting for what were people who, of course, never achieved objectivity but always aspired to it.”
Unlike Trump, President-elect Biden—who, like every American politician, is occasionally irritated, annoyed and even angered by reporters’ questions and news stories—has repeatedly voiced his commitment to a free and independent news media.
“We believe in the power of free press,” then-candidate Biden declared in a July 2019 foreign policy speech. “That's why I'll return immediately to daily press briefings in the White House, the State Department and the Defense Department.”
Kevin Klose, who headed Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty after a long career at The Washington Post (where this writer was a colleague), told The Daily Beast that he’s optimistic that President Biden will undo Trump’s efforts to turn those government-supported non-profits, along with their parent agency Voice of America, into vehicles for political propaganda rather than their traditional role since the Cold War with the Soviet Union of dispensing fact-based journalism to countries around the world.
Klose said Biden, in 1995 a powerful member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was instrumental in obtaining Congress’ and President Bill Clinton’s approval for moving Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty’s headquarters that year from Munich to Prague at the invitation of Vaclav Havel, the president of the newly democratic Czech Republic.
“When you come into a situation, as we have in the past four years specifically, with the president of the United States denouncing fact-seeking, fact-based, fact-reporting journalists as enemies of the people, it’s right out of 1984,” Klose said.
Journalism dean Dalglish predicted: “One of the things we might expect is Biden might try and staunch some of the bleeding that Trump caused as far as our international reputation for promoting freedom of the press goes. Because there’s no question it was just destroyed. It was just blown up.”
An essential step in the Fourth Estate’s recovery, Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan argued in a recent column, is ignoring Trump’s post-presidency antics: “Don’t allow him to become a self-styled president in exile, the golf-cart version of Napoleon on Elba. Do not set up a Mar-a-Lago bureau. Don’t have entire reporting beats dedicated to what he and his family members are up to. And for God’s sake, stop writing about his unhinged tweets.”
Sesno, for one, said he’s dubious of that prescription.
“I think the greatest dilemma facing media is how to cover the former president,” he said. “Because Donald Trump is going to be part-sideshow, part-kingmaker, and we’re not going to know how much is sideshow and how much is kingmaker. So if he goes to Michigan and has a rally of 10,000 people and calls for the impeachment of the governor, do you ignore that? If he’s the potential 2024 candidate, freezing out the Marco Rubios and the anybody-else’s of the world, you can’t ignore that—he could actually be running.
“If he plays golf with Lindsey Graham and whispers to Graham while he’s cheating on the 16th hole that he should be investigating Joe Biden or Jill Biden, and Graham starts floating stories and maybe even suggesting it, that can’t be ignored. The fact is Trump is still going to be out there, and he’s going to be as unhinged as ever.”