President Trump seems always on the attack against news media. He claims they are dishonest because they wrongly assert that many of his statements are untrue — that, in fact, Trump is dishonest.
The evidence opposing his claim, however, is overwhelming.
When the Toronto Star assigned its reporter Daniel Dale to document Trump’s lying during the 2016 presidential campaign, he found that on average Trump lied 20 times a day. When the Pulitzer prize-winning fact checker site Politifact analyzed the degree of truthfulness in Trump’s claims, it found that 70% are false or nearly false, 14% were half-truths, and only 16% were true. With that sort of performance, one can understand why it is so much in Trump’s interest to discredit mainstream news media as an honest broker of facts.
To buttress his claim that news media are dishonest, Trump invokes polls that he claims show the American public agrees with him.
They don’t. But the polls do reveal an insidious and dangerous attack on public trust of their most important democratic institutions.
As proof that news media are dishonest Trump likes to cite polls like the one from Gallup that shows only 32% of Americans trust news media, the lowest ever recorded for the question. When Obama began his presidency the figure was over 50%. What’s even more striking is that when the response is restricted to Republican voters, the 32% drops to 14%.
Does Trump mean that his voters don’t trust Fox News, a mainstream news outlet?
Not likely. Fox News is the “go to” news outlet for Trump voters. That’s confirmed by the recent Pew Research poll that shows it was their main source of news about the 2016 campaign. Fox News was cited by 40% of Trump voters as their main source while other mainstream media outlets were in the single digits (8% for CNN, 6% for NBC, 3% for ABC and CBS). It’s as if for most Trump voters Fox was the only mainstream news outlet that was trusted. Their doubts reside with other mainstream news outlets.
It’s obvious that when Gallup asks Republican respondents to rate all news media on trust and confidence, the lack of trust of most media outlets far outweighs their trust in Fox News. That calculation produces the very low 14% trust level among Republicans.
Interestingly, a similar calculation by Democrat voters produces a figure of 51% who have confidence and trust in mass news media, a much higher figure than for Republicans. The reason for this, as demonstrated by the Pew Research study, is that those who voted for Clinton cite a wide diversity of main sources for news about the 2016 campaign, not just one as with the Trump voters. The most highly cited outlets include CNN with 18%, MSNBC 9%, NPR 7%, ABC 6%, CBS 5%, and NBC with 4%. Fox News was cited by only 3%. Clearly, sampling a wide diversity of news sources produces an outcome among Democrats that reflects more confidence and trust in mass news media.
The takeaway here is not that Americans don’t trust all mainstream news media, as stated by Trump. They trust those they perceive as truthful and do not trust those they feel are not truthful.
Specifically, Republican voters see Fox as the honest mainstream news outlet while others are in large part deemed dishonest. Democrat voters see most mainstream news outlets as honest while Fox is perceived as the dishonest actor in the group.
Perhaps more concerning is that the polls suggest the political divide that characterizes America today has also infected public attitudes about trust and confidence in American mainstream news media.
So what does Fox do that creates such divisive loyalties amongst Americans?
For starters, Fox, unlike all the other mainstream news outlets, agrees with Trump that mainstream news outlets are dishonest–except, of course, Fox News–and that there is a media conspiracy to delegitimize Trump’s presidency by bringing his litany of falsehoods to the attention of the public.
That was the argument Fox’s Bill O’Reilly tried to make on his show as recently as January 23, 2017. It had to do with Trump’s absurd claim (there was photographic evidence proving otherwise) that public turnout for his inauguration was the biggest ever. Period. Thankfully, Bill’s trusted and obviously more discerning colleague Charles Krauthammer, recommended he pop a Valium and try to relax a bit.
This obsequious behavior begs the question–How honest is Fox News?
When comparing Fox News coverage with other mainstream outlets one is struck by how often the most basic practices of responsible journalism are ignored–like, for example, asking questions in a fair and balanced manner. Fox journalists often make disparaging comments about Obama, Clinton, or Democrats, in question preambles before even getting to their biased questions. Or they interrupt or cut off responses the hosts may disagree with. Or on-air panels are stacked with Republican voices. Half-truths and outright falsehoods go unchallenged. The possibility of presenting a fair and balanced debate often simply doesn’t arise. Yet Fox has the audacity to accuse other mainstream news outlets of being dishonest.
While these observations present a dreary image of Fox in toto, it must be noted in all fairness that good journalists can be found at Fox. Examples of the latter include people like Charles Krauthammer, Chris Wallace, Meagan Kelly, Greta Van Susteren, and Bill O’Reilly (January 23 was not a good day for Bill) among others. Examples of dreary include the likes of Sean Hannity and Judge Jeanine Pirro. They may be good propagandists for Trump and the Republican Party, but nothing they do resembles good journalism. Their “journalistic” excesses need to be seen to be believed.
Unfortunately, bad journalism far outweighs good journalism at Fox. A fair measure of blame for this undoubtedly rests with former Chairman and CEO of Fox News Roger Ailes who was forced to resign in 2016 due to charges of serial sexual harassment of women at Fox, including Gretchen Carlson and Meagan Kelly. The culture of harassment that permeated Fox has resulted in significant departures of quality talent including Meagan Kelly to NBC and Greta Van Susteren to MSNBC.
It is clear that the purpose of bad Fox “journalism” is to promote ideological opinions that support Trump and the Republicans. Relevant facts that contradict these opinions are often misrepresented or not raised at all. In large part Fox has become a propaganda machine for Trump and Republicans. Fox reports of political news events are often so at odds with what other mainstream news outlets report , one wonders if it is operating in a parallel universe of alternative facts.
The big loser unfortunately is the Fox audience. They tune in for the news but instead get indoctrination. They trust Fox and are persuaded by its propaganda–News outlets other than Fox cannot be trusted. It is likely the main reason why Republican voters have so little confidence in mainstream news outlets as a group–only 14% do.
But it’s not just Fox audiences that are the losers. All Americans are. As noted earlier, confidence and trust in news media has plummeted to historic lows. Furthermore, the propaganda style of news coverage at Fox has been a major driving force in creating political division in America. Never in recent history has the political divide between Republicans and Democrats been greater. Political propaganda may make Fox a great deal of money but it is profoundly damaging to America’s political institutions.
Of all the mass media news outlets, Fox is very much the bad actor. It is the agent that poisons the well for all the outlets. Worse, it poisons America’s political culture.
This predicament raises a most troubling question about Fox. Should a propaganda outlet posing as a news channel be afforded the full protection of the First Amendment in the Constitution?
When the constitutional protection of free speech allows dishonest propaganda to undermine democracy, free speech becomes a meaningless right. This is not to suggest or encourage an appeal for censorship. But it does call for the exercise of responsibility. With Trump as President, and both he and Fox accusing news media as being inherently dishonest, the country needs to debate what constitutes honest journalism and its practice.
The stakes are very high.
If honesty is sacrificed to ideology and propaganda, can the grand American experiment of democracy survive?
Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved in public opinion polling since the mid-70s, first with the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University, then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and more recently with ViewStats Research, a company he cofounded in 1997. He writes on the role of public opinion polls in matters of politics and public policy. His articles have appeared in iPolitics, The Hill Times, and National NewsWatch. For more, see his blog poll stuff.