Only 40 percent of Americans have “a great deal,” or even “a fair amount,” of trust in the media, according to a Gallup survey published last fall.
Trust in the media dips even lower with Republicans, to a measly 32 percent. That makes it easy for Donald Trump to try to turn the Fourth Estate into a bigger loser than Jeb Bush.
So far, he’s succeeding. The media establishment — just like the GOP political establishment — has lost control of this election. Unable to stop Trump or dictate the narrative about him, the media are left only with second-guessing.
Running against the press is nothing new. Remember Spiro Agnew and “nattering nabobs of negativism”? But Trump is taking the tactic to another level, as shown by his backing of Corey Lewandowski, the campaign manager charged this week with simple assault for grabbing a female journalist who sought to question Trump after a press conference in Jupiter, Fla. The pen wielded by then-Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields could have been a weapon, argued Trump in defense of Lewandowski’s thuggery.
Targeting a female journalist is a two-fer for Trump, who has already waged a much-publicized war with mega-media star Megyn Kelly of Fox News. But no one in the media should expect an outpouring of sympathy, no matter how sexist or Neanderthal Trump may be. A public already skeptical about the press probably agrees in principle with the candidate, anyway. As some see it, a pen or keyboard in the hands of a journalist can be a weapon of character destruction. Following that logic, it would stand to reason that pushing the bearer away would not be considered a crime.
In recent critiques, President Obama has expressed concern about a “balkanized” media, which resulted in a bitterly partisan take on issues ranging from immigration to climate change. Some media critics blame Obama for contributing to that outcome, by playing mostly to friendly news outlets over the course of his presidency and freezing out the unfriendly ones. Trump may keep reporters penned up during rallies, but, as a candidate, he engages far more than Hillary Clinton, and is something of an equal opportunity basher.
A compilation of Trump tweets by The New York Times showcases his appeal to a public that already holds the press in low regard. Trump’s tweets about the Times include the words “failing,” “boring article,” “SAD!,” “poorly run and managed.”
Of “Meet the Press,” he tweeted: “Very dishonest,” “terrible ratings,” “ratings starved.” But “Morning Joe” is also “Off the rails,” “waste of time.”
After National Review — a publication known for its highbrow conservative commentary — devoted an entire issue to a stop-Trump campaign, the candidate tweeted “over,” “dying,” “failing,” “very few people read,” “lost its way.”
Trump’s insults generally ring true enough to resonate with the public, and that’s the case with his press critiques. Readership is declining. The business model is failing. Frantic tweeting by clever wordsmiths isn’t changing the bad news. Meanwhile, pundit declarations of Trump as unelectable are crashing into current political reality.
Trump remains the leading Republican candidate. While his unfavorable rating has now hit 57 percent, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, that’s not much different from the media’s. Even worse for a Trump-contemptuous press, Trump represents ratings and click bait. No one wants to lose the page views that are today’s measurement of success.
Of course, he knows that. That gives him the power to control the media, as long as he remains poised to become the Republican nominee. If he does, the dynamic could shift.
But the media’s underlying problem isn’t Trump. It’s trust. Understanding the lack of trust in what we do is part of understanding what empowers Trump.