Every week we read a new story about a conservative media figure who downplayed Covid-19 or mocked the vaccines and wound up hospitalized or dead. Almost as often, we see sad new examples of overlapping misinformation.
Here’s what I mean by “overlapping misinformation:” An attorney representing many high-profile suspects from the January 6 riot – a riot of lies – has apparently been hospitalized due to Covid. The California-based attorney, John Pierce, has not been showing up for hearings “after reportedly becoming ill with Covid-19,” CNN’s Katelyn Polantz reported, citing DOJ filings. Prosecutors said they believe he “may be in the hospital and that his absence has effectively brought several cases to a standstill.”
“Prior to his reported health issues,” ABC’s team reported, “Pierce pushed conspiracy theories surrounding the insurrection on his Twitter account, where he also espoused anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists.” See? Overlapping misinformation.
Another example was in the news last week: Arizona’s sham election “audit” report was delayed after the Cyber Ninjas CEO and others tested positive for Covid-19. CNN’s team noted that the “Ninjas” were often seen without masks, and it was “not clear whether those who tested positive had been vaccinated.”
Disbelief in election results and distrust of the vaccines are connected. One of the connections is an utter lack of confidence in institutional sources of information. One of the consequences is a pandemic that could have been brought under control by now. Which leads me to this new poll…
The Pew Research Center released a discouraging data set this week. “In just five years, the percentage of Republicans with at least some trust in national news organizations has been cut in half – dropping from 70% in 2016 to 35% this year,” Jeffrey Gottfried and Jacob Liedke wrote. “This decline is fueling the continued widening of the partisan gap in trust of the media.”
Overall, Pew found, 58% of US adults say they have at least some trust in the information from national news outlets. “This is the smallest share over the past five years this question was asked,” Pew said.
Of course, this reflects the views of everyone from MAGA diehards who believe Donald Trump’s “enemy of the people” smears all the way to leftists who believe the press went way too easy on Trump’s undemocratic conduct. Plus, each person’s definition of “national news organizations” is different. But the GOP’s collapse in trust is colossal. (And this isn’t the only poll to say so. Gallup showed a similarly bleak divide late last year.)
Whether you feel these numbers make “the media” look bad or make Republicans look bad, they’re absolutely worthy of analysis, because they telegraph what’s happening to the country writ large. As Sara Fischer wrote for Axios, “the polarization of trust in the media presents one of the most clear and troubling signs for American democracy.”
The United States is one country with two almost completely separate media ecosystems. These ecosystems have different values; prioritize different subjects; and reach different populations. It’s getting almost impossible to appeal to both…
Democrats believe; Republicans disbelieve
Here’s another way to slice the Pew data: “78% of Democrats say they have ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ trust in the information that comes from national news organizations – 43 points higher than Republicans. This partisan gap is the largest it has been over the past five years this question was asked.”
Washington Post tech reporter Gerrit De Vynck took the words right out of my head: “There’s no way to look at this and not be deeply discouraged and sad.”
Let’s recognize that this trust-in-national-news gap isn’t happening in a vacuum. Survey after survey shows that Republicans tend to be more distrustful of government, of science, and so on. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said his takeaway from the Pew poll was that “Republicans trust everything less,” including information shared on social media. “Flooding the zone with s*** works. It lowers trust in the entire system, so the worst among us can profit,” he said.
The “flooding the zone” strategy includes a never-ending Fox News narrative about Big Media and Big Tech censoring and hurting and destroying everyone in its way. People who don’t watch Fox every day don’t understand what it’s like to be told, by people you respect, that every other source is biased, ergo you can’t trust anything.
The propaganda is incredibly effective. Fox didn’t have any reporters in Afghanistan when Kabul fell to the Taliban, but Fox loyalists “knew” not to trust the national news outlets that actually did have journalists in harm’s way covering the story.
Trusted GOP figures, meanwhile, trafficked “in false, misleading or unproved allegations” about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Aaron Blake of the Washington Post pointed out. Daniel Dale debunked one of the claims here.
View from the left
Vox veteran David Roberts, who now runs a newsletter called Volts, reacted to the Pew findings this way: “The decades-long, extremely well-funded conservative effort to completely cut its suburban/rural base off from mainstream sources of information has basically succeeded. Not clear that democracy can survive it.”
Far-right politicians have filled the info-void, often with disinformation and extreme diatribes. On Sunday GOP lawmaker Madison Cawthorn suggested there could be “bloodshed” over future elections while advancing 2020 election lies. On Tuesday his House colleague Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed on Tucker Carlson’s show that telecom providers that follow a standard request from the House committee probing 1/6 to preserve relevant records “will be shut down. And that’s a promise.” A third GOP lawmaker, Mike Gallagher, bashed White House chief of staff Ron Klain for “retweeting progressive journalists and creating an echo chamber,” which stood out to me because the “echo” from Gallagher’s “chamber” is overwhelming.
View from the right
HotAir’s Ed Morrissey, a prominent conserative blogger, highlighted the Pew numbers and said “clearly something broader than ‘Republicans don’t like the news’ is happening here. What’s causing the erosion of trust in national news media outlets? That’s a worthy question for more serious study, but a few highlights over the last five years might explain some of it.” Then Morrissey listed familiar grievances like “the Russia-collusion social panic fueled by media,” “the media’s tongue bath given Andrew Cuomo while thousands of seniors died,” and “the pile-on targeting Brett Kavanaugh and the media’s embrace of Michael Avenatti.”
View from the inside
Rarely do I see a right-wing outlet trying in good faith to profile a mainstream media figure. But I see the opposite all the time. For instance: Manuel Roig-Franzia of the Washington Post traveled to Texas to profile former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, the “rising right-wing radio star” who “doesn’t care if you call her a murderer.”
Roig-Franzia documented how she produces “an avalanche of content” across radio, TV, print, and digital. “She connects with listeners by deploying a polished delivery, citing a blizzard of data, then pivoting for effect to the cadence of her backwoods youth,” he wrote. So Loesch’s Second Amendment absolutism and vaccine skepticism comes in between “anecdotes about family life, pop culture references, silly news briefs and updates about the latest medical woes of her pets.”
None of it, of course, is newsroom-based. And that’s probably the most important point to make. The GOP’s world of media excels at talking-about-the-news, not gathering or processing the news. Bashing the rest of the media is a lot cheaper and easier than sending reporters on assignments. The result is a form of media illiteracy rather than the literacy that’s desperately needed.
Related notes and quotes
– Chris Cillizza examined the Pew numbers and called it “Trump’s most lasting, damaging legacy.”
– Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times made this point: “The news business has taken pretty seriously the surveys showing declining trust in newsrooms, but given the same declining trust in doctors, local school boards, elections, and democracy, maybe we were being a little too hard on ourselves for things beyond our control.”
– Paul Farhi of the Washington Post has a new story about the downstream effects of all this: “Four conservative radio talk-show hosts bashed coronavirus vaccines. Then they got sick.”
Bottom line: Goodbye, common set of facts
CNN media critic Brian Lowry writes: “When I read those Pew poll results, I couldn’t help thinking about two men who have left us but who planted the seeds for the right’s wholesale rejection of mainstream media: Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. The conservative radio host and Fox News founder both had a clear profit incentive built into their formula, which Trump, and others, have taken and run with. By discrediting other forms of media, they cemented bonds to their audience. The other legacy of that, far more problematic, is the destruction of a society that can agree on a common set of facts regarding challenges and crises we face, much less how to address them.”