Close to 73 million people voted for President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and millions of these voters believe his false claims that the election was stolen. The hashtag “#StoptheSteal” has been tweeted a couple million times, and several thousand Trump supporters recently gathered in Washington, D.C., for a “Million MAGA March.”
The event prompted White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany to tweet that a million people marched in support of the president, echoing claims of a previous Trump press secretary, Sean Spicer, who, back in January 2017, wildly exaggerated the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. Former counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s claim as a simple matter of “alternative facts.”
Why do so many Americans accept Trump’s claims of electoral fraud or his spokespersons’ blatantly false assertions as truth? Widespread distrust of the news media is at least part of the answer. Well before the 2020 election season began, Trump spent much of his presidency demonizing the press as “the enemy of the people” and dismissing any reporting, reporters or news outlets he disliked as “fake news.”
Distrust of the News
These attacks undoubtedly contributed to much of the public’s growing distrust of the news media. Although 2020 surveys by the Pew Research Center and the Reuters Institute show that distrust is widespread and to some degree independent of party affiliation or socioeconomic status, skepticism of the media is most pronounced on the right. For example, conservatives are more likely to than liberals to embrace conspiratorial explanations for biased media performance: As Pew reported, 60 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents cited “a desire to mislead audiences” as a “major reason why significant mistakes make their way into news stories,” compared with about a third of Democrats who feel that way.
Many Trump supporters have also been adamantly critical of big tech companies — including Facebook, Twitter and Google — for what they interpret as censorship of stories that favor conservatives and biased algorithms that marginalize conservative perspectives. Facebook’s decision to suppress a poorly sourced and largely unsubstantiated New York Post exposé about Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings stands as a case in point, but additional examples are plentiful.
Distrust of establishment media has led Trump’s supporters and other conservatives to immerse themselves in an echo chamber of overtly partisan right-wing media, including outlets such as Fox News, One America News, Newsmax and Breitbart. As Anthony DiMaggio has shown, the “echo chamber” effect of immersion in partisan media is much stronger on the right than on the left; conservative political views and Republican Party affiliation are extremely strong predictors of Fox News consumption.
The fact that right-wing media relentlessly complain about the bias and duplicity of the rest of the corporate media only deepens the distrust that led conservatives to embrace partisan right-wing media in the first place. The conservative pivot to hyper-partisan news sources is actually ironic, because many of these outlets were founded and are run by billionaire oligarchs who maximize their profits by fanning the flames of discontent while covertly lobbying for policies that maintain the status quo.
Beyond the Right’s Conspiracy Theories
Like novelist Rex Stout’s ace fictional detective Nero Wolfe, news critics of all political persuasions need the agility to “dodge folly without backing into fear.” Skepticism about the corporate news media and global digital platforms such as Google and Facebook is absolutely warranted. But Trump supporters are fundamentally misguided about what’s wrong with these media — especially when some critics assert, without evidence, that news outlets simply fabricate stories to mislead the public.
Conspiratorial explanations that link news slant to the self-interest and partisan bias of editors and journalists — or even aggregates of those individual interests and biases — fail to explain the political power of news or to identify the foundations on which far more fundamental forms of news slant are built. Understanding the establishment media’s deepest biases, not to mention the power of news more generally, requires a structural analysis of journalism, including the economic imperatives, institutional constraints, professional values and social relationships that shape the production of every news story.
This structural perspective has been championed by sociologists such as Gaye Tuchman and Herbert Gans. In her pioneering 1978 study of the social factors that shape the production of news stories, “Making News,” Tuchman observed that news is oriented to discrete, novel events rather than ongoing systemic issues. Thus, “news” is typically about what went wrong today, rather than what goes wrong every day. This perspective has real consequences for coverage of topics such as institutionalized racism or social movements that aim to expose and oppose power relationships that might otherwise be taken for granted as “natural.”
In his 1979 book, Deciding What’s News, Gans picked up and developed Tuchman’s critique, noting, for example, how news professionals often engage in “built-in anticipatory avoidance” to reduce the impact of pressures from advertisers, government agencies and officials, interest groups and peers. Gans observed how forms of anticipatory avoidance reinforced journalists’ preference for featuring the viewpoints of already powerful public figures while avoiding sources that evoke dissent or lack such authority. As others have since summarized, “news” as understood by the establishment press tends to be about what those in power say and do.
These simple but profound insights help to explain why the establishment press does such a poor job of informing the public about the issues that Project Censored highlights in its listing of the year’s most important but underreported news stories. This year’s story list, which we helped to produce, exposes the corporate news media’s deficiencies when it comes to reporting on systemic social problems, including the disappearance or murder of Indigenous women and girls, the deadly consequences of enduring economic inequality, the erosion of workers’ rights and attacks on freedom of expression — as well as important solutions-oriented reporting on voting, banking and access to affordable medicines. Each of these crucial news stories has been well-covered by the independent press but either marginalized or ignored altogether by corporate news media.
The corporate media’s ideological commitments and structural biases are more clearly illuminated by an analysis of topics they systemically ignore or report only in passing, than by critiques that blame the political predispositions of individual reporters and specific media organizations or promote conspiratorial explanations. As Tuchman wrote, “The power to keep an occurrence out of the news is power over the news.”
How then do we avoid folly without bumping into fear? We should defend the media from the irrational attacks of people like Trump and his followers. We should fight hard for the First Amendment rights of reporters and news organizations. But, at the same time, we should critique the corporate news media’s counter-democratic, profit-driven logic and tendency to ignore systematic social injustice.
Trump wants journalists to serve his interests, but the press should serve the public interest. Whereas Trump and many of his most vocal supporters appear to oppose any form of journalism (and rational, fact-based inquiry, more generally) that conflicts with their ideological fantasies, we advocate a critique of the nation’s establishment news media grounded in the core values of journalism as a profession. As the Society of Professional Journalists advocates, ethical journalism should seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.
When corporate news media make good on these ideals, we should reward them with our attention and our trust; when they fail to do so, we should voice our concerns, withhold our support, and redouble our efforts to invigorate the public’s knowledge of — and demand for — high-quality, independent alternatives to both the corporate and partisan right-wing versions of news that otherwise set narrow agendas for what and who counts as important and newsworthy in the United States.