How can the media earn back the trust of viewers? Stop playing by Trump's rules for coverage

Time for TV newsrooms to stop trying to win over GOP viewers. Stand up and band together for a free press instead

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 8, 2020 3:30PM (EST)

U.S. President Donald Trump gets into an exchange with Jim Acosta of CNN after giving remarks a day after the midterm elections on November 7, 2018 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
U.S. President Donald Trump gets into an exchange with Jim Acosta of CNN after giving remarks a day after the midterm elections on November 7, 2018 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Last Monday a group of political journalists showed up to a renowned seat of power to attend a press briefing. An aide to the nation's leader asked several journalists from within the group to stand on one side of a rug, according to a report, while security asked for the other journalists to remain on the other side.

After the separation, the aide told the group that wasn't on their list of invited reporters to leave. Upon hearing this, the rest of group joined their dismissed colleagues and walked out collectively.

Provided you've been keeping up with events, obviously this did not happen in the United States. Described above is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's failed attempt to employ tactics that Donald Trump's administration has successfully used to bring the press to heel – failed, I should say, for the time being.

Johnson attempted to deny access to reporters from outlets such as the Mirror, the Independent, and HuffPost, among others, from a briefing was supposed to provide an update on the U.K.'s trade negotiations with the E.U.

But he may not have been banking on BBC's Laura Kuenssberg, ITV's Robert Peston, and political journalists from Sky News, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun, the Financial Times and the Guardian walking out on him, according to the Guardian.

Or perhaps he was, and simply trusts that now that political power rests in his hands he can follow the lead of this American political cousin and eventually wear down his adversaries.

Witness that a day later, after the White House announced it would exclude CNN anchors from the White House's traditional off-the-record pre-State of the Union lunch, according to Brian Stelter's media newsletter report, "anchors from ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, Fox News, OANN, C-SPAN, CBN, Univision, Telemundo, Sinclair, and Gray TV were all spotted coming or going from the West Wing."

Salon Press Watch columnist Dan Froomkin makes an excellent point about never agreeing to go off the record with this president or any of his White House staffers. But I'd also like to point out the more disheartening fact that this lunch is a tradition as opposed to a necessity.

Yet TV news organizations and networks pretending to be news organizations could not bring themselves to skip out of lunch to stand with their ostracized CNN colleagues, thereby missing what is a relatively low-stakes affair in comparison to a trade policy briefing. Why would they? Banning journalists from White House press events on a whim is now as traditional as this lunch.

And to speak to the argument that they might have missed something by taking such an ethical stand, the bulk of what we learned was discussed, according to the leaks that came out of the dining experience, is that Trump's nickname for MSNBC is MSDNC, and that he intended to grant the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh.

That second one sparked no small amount of recoil, admittedly. However, the public at large would have been just as horrified (by a margin of 51%) or pleased (49%) had they heard that news for the first time at the actual State of the Union address.

"Let reporters who are due to face off with Trump take heart, for the sake of journalism and how history will evaluate the actions of the Fourth Estate in 2019. People may be tired of watching and hearing about the reality show host in the Oval Office, and may be accustomed to expecting that he'll lie brazenly and with little challenge. It may very well be the public's opinion that nothing we do matters. In that case, regardless of outcome, slander and the consistent attacks of an autocrat seeking to delegitimize the work of fact-finders, all that matters is what we do."

That's what I wrote in June of 2019, not even a year ago, after ABC's George Stephanopoulos' interview with Trump aired in prime time to fairly low ratings.  A month later he transformed a seemingly innocuous PR event on the White House lawn into a free campaign ad posed to resemble a press conference. He slandered journalists who pressed him to answer for the racists tweets directly prior to that and spewed lies about immigrants and his mythical ability to control the stock market, and cable news carried it in full.

Back then I wondered if TV newsrooms and reporters would take heed of this chicanery and see it for what it was, knowing in my heart of hearts that the answer would be no. Cut to Thursday of this week, when ABC, CBS, and NBC allowed Trump to ramble live and uninterrupted for more than an hour about his impeachment and the Senate's acquittal, during which an obscenity slipped by the censors.

That was less of a problem, of course, than the fact that they bothered to carry it at all. In an AP story published that day, representatives from two network newsrooms expressed the thought that the president had a right to be heard "out of fairness" following weeks of TV impeachment hearing in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

This skates by the fact that Trump had ample opportunity have his say in several House committee hearings where he declined to appear and before the Senate in a "trial" he influenced to be a sham. So, in fairness, the networks gave Trump an hour-plus victory lap that made no sense, except to his base. And that's great promotional placement in a presidential election year.

"Here we are, near the end of the president's first term, and not one network has really figured out how to deal with him," Hofstra University's communication school dean Mark Lukasiewicz told the AP, the guy you should listen to if you don't want to take my word for it.

In that regard, here's a silver lining, wrapped in the form of a depressing confirmation that you know to be true in your heart of hearts, and it is this: According to recently released survey data from the Pew Research Center, nothing most of the broadcast networks do is likely to change the minds of their viewers when it comes to Trump or Trumpism.

Pew Research Center surveyed 12,043 U.S. adults between October 29 – November 11, 2019, on the organization's American Trends Panel. Survey takers were presented with the names of 30 news sources drawn from across TV, radio, and online, and selected on a range of measures including audience size, topic areas covered, and relevance to political news.

Respondents were shown grids of sources and asked to click on those they had heard of. Among the outlets they were familiar with, participants were asked to then click on those they trusted and then those they distrusted for political and election news.

The overall takeaway is that polarization in the use and trust of media sources has widened in the past five years. "A comparison to a similar study by the Center of web-using U.S. adults in 2014 finds that Republicans have grown increasingly alienated from most of the more established sources, while Democrats' confidence in them remains stable, and in some cases, has strengthened," it says.

The findings aren't entirely disheartening – just mostly. Among all adults, broadcast television news is still considered trustworthy news sources among a large swath of Americans. ABC, NBC, and CBS hold three of the four top ranked slots on the survey, with CNN coming in second place.

Fox News comes in fifth – trusted by slightly more consumers than PBS, 43% to 42%. The BBC, The New York Times, and MSNBC round out the list of sources trusted by 33% or most respondents.

But here's where the population's extremely partisan views and interpretations of the news and information they're receiving comes into play.

Republicans highly distrust political and election news from most media outlets except for, in order, Fox News (trusted by 65% of respondents who identify as Republican or Republican leaning), Sean Hannity's radio show (30%), Rush Limbaugh's radio show and PBS (both logging in at 27%), the Wall Street Journal which, like Fox News, is owned by the Murdoch family (24%), the BBC (21%) and Breitbart (12%).

The network that fares the best among Republicans, but is still distrusted (to the tune of 37%) more than trusted (33%), is ABC News.

Democrats and Democrat-leaning respondents, meanwhile, expressed a high level of trust in many more mainstream news sources than their Republican counterparts, with CNN (67%), NBC (61%), ABC (60%, CBS (59%) and PBS (56%) taking the top five slots.

All in all, Democrats expressed trust in 13 out of the 30 sources presented, with six trusted by at least 50% of those responding. In large, Republicans trust Fox News, ABC . . . and that's pretty much it.

How, exactly, is all of this a silver lining? For starters, provided journalists and their bosses wake up to the concept of defining fairness not in the framework of false equivalency or equal time but in the light of truth, they might rediscover their ethical backbone.

If the data is telling you that a certain sector of viewers will never trust you, stop trying to win them over by bending to the will of an unrepentant habitual and frequent liar bent on destroying fact-based reality.

Broadcasting Thursday's speech live and without interruption only served the ego of a man who just got away with abusing the power of his office with no consequences, and benefited a Senate that would rather be craven than uphold the sanctity of Constitution.

Nothing in that speech served the public good, and a network truly dedicated to that purpose would have cut away, edited it down to highlight pertinent information contextualized by an accuracy check, and included it in a later newscast. The people who would have something negative to say about a network cutting its live feed aren't actually watching those networks anyway.

Knowing that nothing journalists are doing will change any minds frozen by whatever ignorance gorgon has them in its thrall should free reporters to stand with their censored and ostracized colleagues on principle.

This is wishful thinking, I realize. Those anchors showed up for lunch for the prestige, and because a few of them are hoping against hope that they might score a rare one-on-one with Trump as the November elections loom nearer, and because reporters rarely pass up a free lunch.

But here's a clue for the likes of Chuck Todd, who reportedly broke midday bread with POTUS only to be insulted to his face. If he needs you, he'll grant you that interview regardless whether you share a bag of McDonald's with him or not.

There are many factors fueling the partisan divide, mind you; another Pew survey lamentably reports that 45% of Americans have stopped talking about politics with someone in their lives. That breaks down to 60% of Democrats, and 45% of Republicans.

Predictably, "[t]he more closely people follow election news, the more likely they are to say they have stopped talking with someone about politics – including 58% of those who say they follow political and election news 'very closely,'" the survey's write-up says.

The upside of this is that people who get the majority of their political and election news from local TV are far less likely to have stopped talking with someone about politics than any other group.

The downside, and of course there's a downside, is that local news is the next major attack target in the right-wing's disinformation war.

Point being, the media as a whole, here and elsewhere, needs to stiffen its resolve to prevent hastening democracy's stampede toward midnight.

Those U.K. journalists know they aren't immune to concerted efforts to erode the public's trust in journalism. The Guardian piece referenced above points out that Johnson's Downing Street has begun employing its own cameras to broadcast speeches instead of using a network's crew, as has been done under previous Prime Ministers. "The BBC in particular is braced for a coming battle with the government after Johnson signaled during the election that he would consider scrapping the license fee," the story adds.

Maybe the powers that be in Britain's newsrooms will take a hard look at what's happening here and battle tooth and nail for a free press. That includes standing with ostracized colleagues and journalists banned from Downing Street and other official government venues simply for doing their jobs.

A major difference between the U.S. and the U.K. is that Britain stood toe-to-toe against fascism in the not-too-distant past. There are still people alive who remember their homes being bombed into rubble by Axis powers. 

But even now, that nation's own rising tide of anti-immigration sentiment and the re-emphasized exceptionalism evidenced by Brexit prove how precarious its situation is. In the midst of all the uncertainty one prays its people remember the role a free press plays in preserving the principles of democracy, and hold fast to preserving it.

In doing so, Britain's fourth estate can be an example to their Stateside counterparts who appear to have forgotten their charge, who have not quite embraced the freedom in knowing that in the view of the nation's leader and his blinkered followers, nothing they do matters. Once they understand that, there's nothing to be lost in doing what's right.  

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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