Why conservatives lost faith in mainstream media

Updated 10:57 AM ET, Tue November 21, 2017

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Story highlights

  • SE Cupp: For decades, the mainstream media has been out of alignment with the conservative base
  • To regain the trust of conservatives, journalists must commit themselves to getting it right the first time -- and letting the story lead wherever it may go, writes Cupp

S.E. Cupp is a CNN political commentator and the host of "S.E. Cupp Unfiltered," covering contemporary issues on HLN. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. This is the next installment in CNN Opinion's series on the challenges facing the media as it is under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN)The conservative skepticism of the media runs deep.

Believe me, President Donald Trump didn't invent it. Ever since the advent of "the media" as an industrial complex -- large corporate conglomerates based in coastal cities where many of the ad agencies are -- it's been a left-leaning, urban-minded, somewhat elitist outfit with a blind spot for conservative America.
As the media merged with Hollywood, another bastion of cultural liberalism, it grew even bolder in its disregard for the common man -- the commuting salesman, the farmer, the churchgoer, the truck driver. From 1966's "Is God Dead?" Time magazine cover, to a portrayal of the returning Vietnam veteran as a ticking time bomb, to a newspaper's indiscriminate publishing of law-abiding gun owners' home addresses, the media became a decidedly secular and leftist business.
Today, newsrooms and editorial boards tilt independent, but still with a significant left-right imbalance. A 2014 study of the "American journalist" found that 28% of US journalists claimed to be Democrats versus 7% who claimed to be Republican.
This isn't to say conservatives aren't still nestled within the media. In conservatism's intellectual heyday in the 1950s, voices like Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk, along with important publications like Human Events and National Review, helped provide an alternative, if not balanced, voice to the liberal landscape. But even this strain of conservative thought often talked far over the heads of every day traditionalists for whom Zionism, utopianism and F.A. Hayek had little to do with their daily lives.
But in the late-1980s and mid-1990s, something extraordinary happened. Rush Limbaugh's talk show was syndicated across America in 1988. The Drudge Report launched as a weekly email in 1995. And Fox News hit the airwaves in 1996.
    In the decades since, conservative media has exploded beyond what Buckley or Kirk could have ever imagined. And not only was conservative media competing, it was corporate. It grew beyond television and took over AM radio. As digital media grew, so too did the conservative footprint. Eventually, it got harder and harder to complain, with such a huge place at the table, about the liberal media.
    That doesn't mean we didn't, and usually for good reason. When liberal anchors or editorial boards showed their hands or slammed conservatives as backwards Bible-thumpers who don't believe in evolution or abortion, or maligned otherwise wildly popular points of view for those residing in middle America, we called them out. Fox News personalities and groups like the Media Research Center made cottage industries of just this exercise, routinely blasting the New York Times or NBC.
    To this day, religion is still an ill- or under-covered subject, despite the majority of the country being religious. In 2010, I wrote a book called "Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity," which explored this very topic, arguing that Christians were misunderstood, misrepresented and mistreated by many in the mainstream media.
    But with Drudge, Limbaugh and Fox flexing their considerable muscles, the conservative skepticism of "the media" became a conservative skepticism of the "liberal media," or as Sarah Palin liked to say, the "Lamestream Media."
    Enter Trump. As he faced incoming fire from both sides -- dismayed conservatives at buttoned up outfits like the Weekly Standard and National Review, as well as horrified liberals at both establishment and progressive outlets -- being mad at the liberal media wasn't going to cut it. Suddenly, ALL media was bad, and ALL news was fake.
    The constant bashing has worked. Trust in the media is at record lows among Republicans especially, according to Gallup. In fact, in 2016, at the height of the campaign, only 14% of Republicans said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. And that number was down from 32% the year before.
    Trump has bragged about that fact that more conservatives trust him than they do the media. But it's nothing to be proud of. It's something that should deeply trouble everyone, but especially the President of the United States.
    A free, strong press has always been, for all its imperfections, the watchdog of the state and a pillar of democracy vital to the health of our nation. Sowing distrust in it the way he regularly does not only creates confusion and chaos, it leads to ill-fated uprisings (like white nationalism), needless paranoia, increased hostilities and a collective sense that no one can be trusted.
      That's a horrible thing to want. But if you're Trump and you want to be the only voice of record, sowing distrust in all sorts of institutions -- from the press to Congress to the intelligence community to the military -- is how you consolidate power.
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      It's a dangerous enterprise, and one that is working far too well. Journalists can help themselves by, simply put, being better at our jobs. Giving Trump less ammunition in the form of unforced errors is crucial. The media must prove it is deserving of the trust it desires. Mistakes, which will happen, must be corrected swiftly.
      Instead of willing the news to go in a certain direction, we should wait and see if it actually does. Whataboutism isn't journalism. Neither is "look over here!"
      Conservative journalism, in particular, must provide clear-eyed commentary and analysis in the era of Trump. While liberalism is united against a common enemy, conservatives are divided. Some like the President, some like him enough and some like him just because he is not the alternative, Hillary Clinton. With no orienting political direction, the uniting principle among conservatives in media must be truth.