When a reputable poll recently found that nearly half of American voters – 46 percent – think the news media are fabricating stories about President Trump, alarm bells went off.
Mr. Trump’s constant cries of “fake news” must be working, some surmised. The president is actively degrading public trust in the media, his opponents say, and threatening a central pillar of democracy whose freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment.
For Trump supporters, the Politico/Morning Consult poll seemed to be vindication. The media have been unfair to Trump, they say, running with any unflattering gossip they can find or just making stuff up out of whole cloth, and people are starting to understand that.
The reality is more complicated. Public trust in mass media has been sinking for decades, as Gallup polling shows – long before Trump burst onto the political stage. And it’s impossible to draw a direct correlation between Trump’s statements and any growth in distrust. But the president is clearly taking advantage of this fertile ground – of voters prepared to believe the worst about news outlets – and using it to his advantage, say experts on the media.
“For 40-plus years, the public – especially conservatives – have been primed to distrust the mainstream media,” says Rutgers University historian David Greenberg, author of the book “Republic of Spin.” “There are arguments going back to [President Richard] Nixon that the objective media are actually biased in a liberal way, and hostile to Republicans.”
Add to that the advent of the Internet and especially social media, where it’s easy to spread and share these ideas, and it’s not surprising that a substantial portion of the electorate subscribes to that worldview, Mr. Greenberg says. And it’s not a big leap from perceived bias to claims of outright fabrication of news stories.
For Trump, the “fake news” charge is often the default reaction to media reports he doesn’t like, particularly those that portray palace intrigue in the White House and that are unflattering to Trump personally. The NBC News story about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allegedly calling Trump a “moron” is a prime example. Trump vehemently disputed the story, although Secretary Tillerson has never directly denied making the remark.
But the reality is, Trump seems to love reporters as much as he hates them. The media, after all, fueled his rise to the presidency, covering one eye-popping Trump event after another during the campaign, and leaving the other candidates starving for oxygen. Now, as president, he is treated to round-the-clock coverage, chronicling his every public performance and giving him a ready platform for attention.
In fact, Trump seeks out the company of reporters more than many of his predecessors. When traveling on Air Force One, he comes to the back of the plane to schmooze with the small traveling press corps on about every third trip, say reporters who travel with him regularly. That is far more than President Obama ever did.
Trump also, of late, has held impromptu press conferences that are unprecedented in the modern era. Last week, with little advance warning, he took to the Rose Garden to answer questions for 45 minutes. On Wednesday, he stopped for 15 minutes on the South Lawn, before boarding the presidential helicopter, and fielded questions from reporters. When asked if he should be more civil, he came back with an extraordinary answer that spoke to his grievances with media coverage – but also revealed much about his self-image.
“Well, I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am,” Trump said.
“You know, people don’t understand – I went to an Ivy League college,” he continued. “I was a nice student. I did very well. I'm a very intelligent person. You know, the fact is, I think, I really believe, I think the press creates a different image of Donald Trump than the real person.”
This notion of a president feeling misunderstood is hardly unique.
“Every president, at least every president I’ve studied, going back to Franklin Roosevelt, believes that he understands the truth better than the press does,” says Greenberg.
When stories reflect the president’s spin, or view of things, the president thinks the press is doing its job, he says. When reporters question it, and include dissenting voices in their stories or point out faults with the president’s claims, he thinks they’re editorializing or lying. Reporters, who consult multiple sources and provide other points of view, think they have a better purchase on reality.
Then there’s Trump’s free-wheeling way of expressing himself.
“One of the problems with Trump is, if one wanted to correct everything that he said that was misleading, there would be no time to cover the news,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of Factcheck.org.
That leads Trump supporters to complain that journalists spend all their time attacking Trump, instead of reporting his accomplishments. “That critique actually has some legitimacy,” says Ms. Jamieson.
Low unemployment, a booming stock market, sweeping deregulation across many government agencies, and the seating of a conservative justice on the Supreme Court are all part of the Trump record that the president and his supporters feel are getting short shrift in the media.
Jamieson also advises that the media refine how it fact-checks Trump. Don’t restate the false information in the process of trying to correct it, she says, because that actually reinforces the incorrect information. And it’s best to avoid repeating the phrase “fake news.”
“Call it viral deception,” says Jamieson. “ ‘Fake news’ means anything Donald Trump doesn’t like. You don’t want to delegitimize the word ‘news’ by calling it ‘fake.’ ”
Whom do you trust?
As for the media’s public image, the news isn’t all terrible. A June poll by Gallup found that US confidence in newspapers is still low but rising. The same poll found that confidence in TV news is also up – albeit from a record low of 18 percent three years ago.
A Quinnipiac poll released Oct. 12 also had some good news for the media, along with some bad: While American voters disapprove, 60 percent to 35 percent, of the way the media cover Trump, they also disapprove, 59 to 39, of the way Trump talks about the media.
But on the question on whom voters trust more to tell the truth about important issues, the media beat Trump handily, 52 percent to 37 percent.
Ultimately, for many voters, Trump’s cries of “fake news” have become such a constant refrain that a lot of Americans are just tuning them out, says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.
“People have made up their minds about Trump, about the media, about so many things,” Ms. Bowman says. “Washington just seems like a sideshow to most people.”