In a rally in Phoenix this past summer, President Trump galvanized his supporters with a familiar theme: hatred of the media. He decried the media as “very dishonest” and “crooked,” and called journalists “bad people.” The crowd shouted back, “CNN sucks!”
This went on for 77 minutes.
Trump has spent much of his presidency attacking the media and showing hostility to reporters. But it’s not just Trump and his supporters who are frustrated with the news media.
A 2017 Gallup poll shows that just 27 percent of the American public has “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. Just under a quarter have high confidence in TV news, and a mere 16 percent have high confidence in online news sources. Though these numbers have risen slightly since 2016, they come as part of a distinct downward shift since the 1980s.
I think this frustration is reasonable. By prioritizing ratings over the dispersal of useful information, traditional corporate media outlets have failed to keep the American public informed about the critical issues of our times.
Thanks to watchdog journalism, these shortcomings are quantifiable. A 2016 Media Matters report, for instance, showed that ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX only devoted 50 minutes combined to climate change. This marked a decrease in coverage from 2015, even though 2016 was the hottest year on record to date.
2017 is shaping up to be even hotter, and scientists agree: The change is human-caused, and it’s not only warming the planet but also worsening weather disasters across the globe. From the Florida Keys to Mumbai, the effects are being felt.
As someone who works in media, I frequently hear complaints about the kinds of coverage people see on television and in newspapers. I live and work in Baltimore, a city that is still feeling the effects of its 2015 uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
When corporate media called the young Black people who took to the streets “thugs” and “criminals” instead of mourning the loss of Freddie Gray, exposing extreme police corruption, or helping his community heal, Baltimore noticed. In a now-famous CNN segment from Baltimore, a young protester grabbed a reporter’s microphone and shouted “f*ck CNN” — words that became immortalized in protest chants long before Trump was even a presidential candidate.
It’s easier than ever for corporate media to write off mistrust of media, because it’s easy to write off the loudest media critic in the US: President Trump. But again, studies show that people are onto something. An iQ media study on the Baltimore uprising showed that from April 1 to May 4, 2015, ABC News alone used the word “thug” — often regarded as a thinly veiled racial slur — 2,523 times.
The problem extends to other hot-button issues, too. A Georgetown study showed that for all “terrorist” attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449 percent more coverage. This is despite the fact that far-right perpetrators — like the white nationalists who massacred Black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015 and Sikh worshipers in Wisconsin in 2012 — actually carried out more attacks in the US than Muslims did. The number of US hate groups has risen by 19 percent since 2014, including a 197 percent increase in anti-Muslim groups from 2015 to 2016. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s third attempt at a travel ban — which still mostly targets Muslim countries — is being billed in the media as a protection against terrorism.
This is all to say, I, too, have my misgivings about corporate media. But unlike Trump, I don’t ascribe its faults to journalists being “dishonest” or “bad people.” Rather, I think we’re seeing a problem of ownership, and of the role that corporate media plays.
Exposing climate change as human-caused is risky when you’re running a business fueled by advertisers and sponsors that make money off fossil fuels. Being too critical on race or terrorism is risky when white viewers might get upset with you. (Though covering Trump himself is great for business: One study estimated that Trump got $5 billion worth of free media from obsessive press coverage in 2016. And traditional outlets fell all over themselves to cover his attacks on the press in Phoenix.)
It’s tough to question those with power when the powerful are keeping your lights on, your coffee hot and your producers paid. But it’s people in power who most need to be questioned.
I know that there are people in corporate newsrooms who are committed to these values, but I also know that it’s harder to tell uncompromised stories when you’re concerned about losing funding. That’s why newsrooms must be freed, not just from the attacks of President Trump, but also from the confines of corporate sponsorship and advertising. You can make this happen: Support your independent news networks. Subscribe if you can afford it. And if you have critiques of the news you’re watching, say so.