5 Ways The Media Can Regain The Public Trust

5 Ways The Media Can Regain The Public Trust

The media have lost the trust of many Americans thanks to their partisan and shrill political coverage. Here are a few ways to start gaining trust back.
Mollie Hemingway
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Conservative Newt Gingrich mocked the media in a speech in Washington this week. “It’s astonishing to me, as a historian, how the elite media has missed all of this,” Gingrich said. “They’re so ideologically committed and terrified of defeat that they can’t stop and ask themselves, ‘What is this anomaly? What is this remarkable thing?’”

“The same idiots who failed to understand that Trump was going to win the nomination and then failed to understand that Trump was going to win the general election, are now commenting on Trump’s cabinet,” Gingrich said. “It would be like having a sports reporter who misreported a football game by writing about how many home runs were hit—you would get a new reporter,” he said, adding, “You have people at the New York Times and the Washington Post who have been consistently wrong now for two solid years, and they get promoted because their editors were even more wrong.”

From a different political perspective, progressive photographer and writer Chris Arnade‘s past as a Wall Street bond trader gave him some insight into media failures of 2016.

“On Wall Street you wanted to lose money when everyone else lost money. That way you could shrug, ‘Hey, It wasn’t just me. We all did it!'” he wrote on Twitter. “Consequences suffered for losing money — if others also did — was mitigated. The entire system could just pretend it didn’t happen. In a twisted way, if you lost a real lot, it could be spun heroic. Showed you had what it took. Someone who wasn’t scared of risk. Game for all involved required finding a scapegoat for system wide losses: Too much regulation! Never lend to the poor! Bad politicians! Then everyone complicit just marched forward — with little learned, and often, hardened in their certainty that they understood it all.” He continued:

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Finally he said, “The members of the Democratic party (my party!) apparatus are apoplectic about everything and everyone — except it seems themselves. Meanwhile, odd pundits who got it most wrong — like the bug eating professor — are using their loss to try and find a greater platform. You would imagine the political class, journalist, punditry, would & should change rather dramatically post Trump. It won’t though. Entire system failed together. So no need for self-reflection. No need for a rebuild. Just keep chugging along. Blaming everyone else.”

It’s actually somewhat comforting to see that the media industrial complex isn’t the only one that can fail so horribly and change its ways so little. To be sure, some reporters did a great job covering Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, their voters, and related issues and people. Arnade is one of them. But the overall media performance really couldn’t have been worse.

It wasn’t just that they completely missed the possibility that Donald Trump might win the presidency, though that was the one failure that can’t be denied. It was that their coverage elevated Trump during the primary, their coverage of Hillary Clinton morphed into running defense for her when she faced legal or political trouble, their narrative push aligned perfectly with the Democratic Party and its candidate, their disdain for Trump voters or the issues they cared about was palpable, and their attention deficit news judgment elevated inaccurate horserace coverage over an understanding of deeper issues at play. And it was also that their failure rested upon a legacy of bias, error, and histrionics that encouraged many Americans to simply tune out their increasingly shrill and partisan claims.

One may have thought that the media would have had the intelligence and decency to reflect on these failures and work to improve them. But without even a moment’s hesitation (there are a few exceptions here and there), the media have picked themselves up and continued down the path that brought them a Trump victory. More than a month has passed since the election. They’ve been given ample time to acknowledge their deep sickness, much less begin to fix it. They have no intention of doing so.

The Washington Post is putting out word that they’re financially okay, and that this will be their measure for how well they’re doing. But in the same way that supposedly responsible media types keep saying fake news will happen as long as no one is held accountable, the same must be said for mainstream media types. Whether “fake news” sites or the more traditional “news” sites make money cannot be the measure of accountability. To that end, here are a few ways the media could get more than the current 6 percent of Americans to have faith in their work and regain trust among its viewers, readers, and listeners.

1) Stop Rewarding Failure

Gingrich is absolutely correct. One of the most gobsmacking things for a non-liberal to witness in the post-election era is the hiring and promoting of some of the biggest partisans in the business. Glenn Thrush, who described himself as a hack one of the times he passed his copy on to members of the Clinton campaign for pre-publication approval, was not fired or punished in any way but literally hired by the New York Times this week.

Passing copy onto sources is neither normal nor considered ethical, which is why Thrush implores John Podesta not to tell anyone what he’s doing.

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It’s not just that. It’s that Thrush is the type of horserace-focused reporter who thinks policy questions at debates are boring. He routinely responded “meh” to damaging news about Clinton, such as that she lied when describing the Benghazi attack on 9/11 as something other than what it was, a terrorist attack. Thrush is a general fan of the “if you ignore it, it didn’t happen” school of covering Democrats. And his adoration of Clinton and hatred for Trump are almost mirror images.

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He even worked to find a scapegoat for his lady.

Thrush’s very active Twitter feed is to the left of most paid operatives of the Democratic Party, a non-stop litany of vitriol for anyone to the right of David Axelrod. To be clear, this is perfectly fine behavior for someone, just not for a journalist who is charged with covering politics with any pretense of impartiality.

By the way, when a few reporters tried to cover the story of Thrush’s cozy ties to the Clinton campaign, Politico refused to respond with anything other than spin. In one case, Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring said that a reporter’s previous snark directed at Thrush made him too biased to cover Thrush’s WikiLeaks scandal. He asked, “Is it standard practice at the Daily Caller to assign reporters to cover subjects whom they’ve described [negatively]?” Which would perhaps be an okay question to ask if the topic at hand weren’t the propriety of having a political reporter who has the Clinton campaign sign off on stories when he’s not tweeting about how the Republican candidate is evil.

It’s easy to pick on Thrush, but the New York Times also recently hired Sopan Deb, a Trump reporter who is so good at his job that he was pretty sure that the flood of sexual impropriety allegations against Trump, all released around the country within hours of each other, were organic and in no way coordinated by anyone on the Left. To be fair, he was in plenty of company on the credulity bus, which is a separate story about the one-sided foolishness of our national political media.

But keep in mind that this was just days after the obviously orchestrated Alicia Machado hit whose anti-Trump PR campaign Team Clinton had acknowledged coordinating! Deb was basically the equivalent of an opposition candidate campaign tracker, embedded at CBS but spinning in a Clinton-supportive manner. As one long-time successful journalist put it to me, “Sopan Deb is probably one of the worst reporters on the Trump beat. Everything he concentrated on (and does) is the wrong thing.” For that, he was hired by the New York Times.

2) Stop the Self-Important, Delusional Speeches

No group of people hands out more awards to its members than journalists. A few weeks ago, Christiane Amanpour, of all people, received an award. CNN’s chief international correspondent used the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award speech to give her thoughts on the state of the media. It was a helpful window into the media’s struggle coming to terms with its problems. Early on, she said:

We are not there but, postcard from the world: this is how it goes with authoritarians like Sisi, Erdoğan, Putin, the Ayatollahs, Duterte, et al. As all the international journalists we honor in this room tonight and every year know only too well: First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating–until they suddenly find themselves accused of ,being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison–and then who knows?

Oh, for the love of all that’s holy. They have learned nothing. The media’s victim complex ignores the reality that many journalists have been openly sympathizing and associating with one side of the political and cultural divide for decades. Decades. To even pretend otherwise is a clumsy form of gaslighting that only seems to convince liberal journalists and their political allies.

People noticing that journalists have a different approach to covering (with hysteria and outrage) Trump’s claim he’d “wait” and “see” about election results before accepting them than the rioters in the street and the “Russians stole it!” and “celebrities finishing each others sentences in an attempt to subvert the Trump victory” memes from progressive leaders just means we have pulses and eyes and ears. To immediately claim that noticing these things means we’re on the cusp of Ayatollah rule is insane.

Later Amanpour said, “I admit I was shocked by the exceptionally high bar put before one candidate and the exceptionally low bar put before the other candidate.” She wasn’t kidding. She wasn’t playing stupid. She wasn’t, to my knowledge, hopped up on goofy pills. But she can’t possibly believe this or say it with a straight face. Everyone — everyone — saw how virulently opposed to Trump nearly everyone in the media was. And everyone saw how gentle they were the deeply flawed candidate Hillary Clinton.

In any case, the overall tenor of the speech was that “a great America requires a great and free and safe press” and that we must “recommit to robust fact-based reporting without fear or favor–on the issues.”

This actually sounds like a great idea. We should admit that the media behaved horribly this cycle, treating Trump supporters as racist bigots, screaming hysterically over everything Trump said or did, and defending Hillary Clinton instead of just reporting on her various problems! We should report the news without fear or favor instead of pushing false narratives and bullying political opponents!

It was the same message given by Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, when he accepted his Christopher Hitchens award. He praised Amanpour’s comments on Trump’s authoritarianism and said journalists are wondering what to do for the next four years.

The answer, I believe, is pretty simple. Just do our job. Do it as it’s supposed to be done.

Every day as I walk into our newsroom, I confront a wall that articulates a set of principles that were established in 1933 by a new owner for The Post, Eugene Meyer, whose family went on to publish The Post for 80 years. The principles begin like this: ‘The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.’

The public expects that of us. If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly—because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions—the public will not forgive us.

Nor, in my view, should they.

Yes, of course, the press should do its job. But the obvious problem with Baron’s call to arms is that the press hasn’t been doing its job well for a very long time. The pattern of failure — toward elite liberal groupthink — makes it seem they have been not doing their job out of fears it would make them unpopular in elite circles.

Baron notes that the public won’t forgive the press for not doing their job during a Trump presidency. The public that exists outside of Democratic circles already is not in a terrifically forgiving mood for how major media handled the entire Obama presidency, from shoveling fake news about Obamacare being awesome to shoveling fake news about how all opposition to him was obviously rooted in bigotry and nothing more. From claiming, over and over again, that the Obama administration was scandal-free (!) to claiming that Republicans were too extreme to be tolerated.

Following Trump’s surprising win, the Washington Post did what it should have done a better job of months ago. It asked his supporters why they voted for him. Among the many interesting answers, a handful which you can read here, were several that specifically mentioned the media:

  • Nicole Citro wrote, “As Trump cleared each hurdle during the campaign, and I saw how the media, the establishment and celebrities tried to derail him, my hope began to grow that I would be able to witness their collective heads explode when he was successful.”
  • Diane Maus wrote, “The media did the United States a huge disservice in covering this campaign.”
  • Lori Myers wrote, “I voted for Donald Trump because the media was so incredibly biased. They were unhinged in their obvious role as the Clinton campaign propaganda machine. The collusion was just too much.”
  • Samantha Styler wrote, “I am a gay millennial woman and I voted for Donald Trump because I oppose the political correctness movement, which has become a fascist ideology of silence and ignorance. After months of going back and forth, I decided to listen to him directly and not through minced and filtered quotes from the mainstream media.”

To wax poetic about how awesome our media institutions are and how important they are and how we all just have to suddenly “do our jobs” is to show profound ignorance about the disconnect we have with our readers, viewers, and listeners.

Again, 94 percent of Americans say they do not have a great deal of confidence in the media. It is ostensibly in the business of truth telling, so you see where that’s a rather dramatic problem. Quit the awards and self-important speeches unless they begin with a full four-hour mea culpa for all the unfair practices the media have engaged in while promoting candidates and denigrating others.

3) Quit Pushing Narratives Over Facts

The New York Times‘ former media correspondent Michael Cieply wrote in Deadline Hollywood last month about how his former newspaper pushed narratives, in contrast to how he’d seen it done at other newspapers:

It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called ‘the narrative.’ We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: ‘My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?’

The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: ‘We set the agenda for the country in that room.’

What was shocking to Cieply is probably less surprising to readers of major media outlets. This type of narrative-pushing — whether it’s to redefine marriage laws, promote abortion, or merely advance Democratic candidates and their agendas — is beyond obvious. We all know the narratives of the 2016 campaign, into which all stories were shoehorned, from the superior strategy of the Clinton campaign to the boorish vulgarity and unacceptability of Trump. A reality that differed from these storylines was never allowed to break through.

To her credit, public editor Liz Spayd wrote a column begging New York Times employees to dramatically improve their coverage. She discussed the “searing level of dissatisfaction” readers had been expressing.

Readers complain heatedly and repeatedly about the forecasting odometer from The Upshot that was anchored on the home page and predicted that Hillary Clinton had an 80 percent chance or better of winning. They complain that The Times’s attempt to tap the sentiments of Trump supporters was lacking. And they complain about the liberal tint The Times applies to its coverage, without awareness that it does.

She lambasted the media for caricaturing Trump’s comments and supporters.

What struck me is how many liberal voters I spoke with felt so, too. They were Clinton backers, but, they want a news source that fairly covers people across the spectrum…

That left many of the readers I spoke with feeling like The Times was a swirl of like-mindedness. Gudemann and other readers said The Times’s liberalism sounds the loudest the closer you get to the Opinion section, perhaps not surprisingly. Still, too many of the voices, of both the regular columnists and even guest writers, are from people with similar views.

Unfortunately, her column produced little to no apparent self-reflection at the Times. When she critiqued Times reporters for their partisan tweets, reporters at the Times, the Post, and Politico called her a disgrace and an embarrassment, among other things. Some, such as Keith Olbermann called on her to resign. She took her critique back.

We now see that the narrative being pushed by the media is that Trump’s election isn’t legitimate. This narrative aligns perfectly — perfectly — with the Democratic National Committee’s narrative. Just as it did on fake news. And just as it did on Trump’s unacceptability.

The reason nobody trusts the media is because the media hasn’t been pushing facts but narratives. To claim that they will now suddenly discover “doing their jobs” as an answer to what ails them is cute. The media always do a better job of skeptically covering Republicans than Democrats. How many times have people joked that we need a Republican in the White House so journalists can remember what it is they do.

It is so perfect how the media re-discovers their important oversight role just as soon as a Republican is elected. But the problem — and it really is a problem in this era — is that the very last people you would trust to cover Trump are the ones ostensibly tasked with doing just that. That’s not healthy.

4) Don’t Be Gratuitously Hostile to Trump

On which note, can we talk about how insane the post-election posture toward Trump has been? You really would have thought the media couldn’t get worse. Yet their choices were to admit error or quadruple down. Being the least reflective people on planet earth, many people chose the latter.

Twitter has become something of an asylum for journalists who can’t cope with reality. Every single day, multiple times a day, reporters tweet outrage at this or that Trump thing. Sometimes they are outraged by things that turn out to be not true. Sometimes they are outraged simply because they are liberal. The main unifying theme, though, is constant outrage.

This isn’t even a particularly noteworthy example but it’s an incredibly typical example.

So that’s a reporter focused on Trump. Trump postponed, not canceled, a press conference. I’m not entirely sure how much legitimate criticism he faced for that or the Tillerson pick, but the idea that Trump “trotted” out a “shiny celebrity” to change the subject is at the very least beyond Tur’s reportorial capabilities. Trump has been meeting with all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. Even if he claimed he was taking these meetings for particular reasons, reporters wouldn’t know the real motivation for certain.

This is why reporters should avoid discussing motivation rather than facts. But to cast such a relentlessly negative approach to literally every single thing Trump says or does is just annoying beyond belief. That goes triple when we have the same media in the same week gushing about how Obama golfed with Bill Murray in the Oval Office (while Syria and other issues he “faces criticism over” are ongoing, no?).

The non-stop hostility is also dangerous. Puzzle it out, press princesses. When every single cabinet pick, no matter how qualified or how perfect for the job, is treated to the same smears (Secret racist! Unacceptable for reasons! Not as liberal as the staff of The New York Times! YEARRRRRGHHHHHHHHHHHH!) only a crazy person or someone in the throes of hyperpartisanship would keep paying attention. When reporters put the absolute worst construction on every single thing Trump says, the same problem arises. When reporters who have known and understood the entertainer Trump for decades suddenly start pretending that they can’t understand a word he’s saying, or suddenly interpret him with nearly autistic hyperliteralism, normal people who understand him just fine tune it out.

So let’s say that Trump did something bad in the real world, something counted as bad by those of us who have come to terms with the reality that Donald Trump is the legitimate president-elect of the country we live in. How would we know? This year has been nothing but a daily remembrance of the moral of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The media have cried “Nazi” non-stop all year. Obviously most people aren’t buying what they’re selling. But what if a problem arose that really did need the public to come together?

The deluge of round-the-clock hostile coverage for things like picking a completely normal and qualified cabinet secretary mean that media institutions will be incapable of holding Trump accountable for actual problems or warning the public about actual problems that exist outside of the fevered hallucinations of groupthinking reporters.

5) Make Systematic Changes

I nearly stood up and cheered when I read University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite’s little prediction for 2017. He said he’d been in all these meetings of bright journalism thinkers about how to restore trust in the media, how to reach middle America, and how to tackle fake news. He wrote:

You won’t fix this. Any of this. Not in 2017. Not soon.
You won’t fix trust in news because…
You won’t fix how news gets made because…
You won’t fix how you hire senior leadership to diversify your thinking because…
You won’t fix what stories are selected because…
You won’t change who you hire to do the stories because…
You won’t fix the ways that stories are written to be more transparent and more directly sourced to give people a reason to trust you because…
You won’t fix the lack of training in newsrooms that could retrain reporters to source stories more explicitly because…
You won’t fix the content management systems to require sourcing on stories to be transparent and structured and visible because…
You won’t fix the technology leadership in the company because…
You won’t fix the thinking that makes you believe you’re not a technology company because…
You won’t fix the belief that trust and fake news is Google and Facebook’s problems and not yours because…
You still don’t believe you’re the problem.
Wake me when you do.

Can I get an amen?

Admitting that the media has a problem is the first step. And it’s not just making some brief allusion to having kinda sorta messed up 2016 predictions a little bit. No, it needs to be a full acknowledgement of everything they’ve done wrong. Since they clearly have not even the slightest clue of what they’ve done wrong, we need them to start listening to Spayd and other critics instead of drumming them into silence. The news consumers will be the ones to decide when the apologies are enough, not the people giving awards to each other.

While this process is ongoing, the media need to do what Baron and Amanpour claimed needs to be done. They need to just report facts and do their jobs instead of push narratives. Full stop. Remove the snark and the catty comments and the hatred and bile. Just report what’s going on and let people make up their own minds.

Finally, there must be a long process of systematic change, of changing leadership at publications, and hiring practices. The newsrooms are overflowing with people who all share the same impossibly narrow worldview. That must end.

Hire reporters and columnists who don’t seethe with hatred for people who just elected the next president. Bring in ideological diversity not just to the opinion pages, which so desperately need it, but the news pages that can’t hide the biases of their reporters as well. (The Post claimed last week that it had been unable to find columnists who could defend or explain Trump. I informally polled conservative writers and none of the men or women I spoke with had heard so much as a peep from anyone at any major media outlet.)

Hire people who have no intention of working or living in Washington DC or New York City, two locales that seem perfectly designed to force otherwise fine people into an oppressive conformity of elite liberal opinion. It’s 2016, and people can work from anywhere in the world. Let them do that and encourage them not to get swept up in the biases that so control most newsrooms. Have an interior watchdog who makes sure that the workplace isn’t hostile to people who don’t share the bosses’ views on abortion, religious liberty, Republicans, economic policy, immigration, and national security.

These are only things that media figures should do if they genuinely care about the future of the country and protecting the role of the press in preserving her integrity. If media leaders truly believe that our times are fraught and require greater civil discourse and understanding, they should check themselves and get to work. If that’s just posturing, of course, they should continue what they’re doing.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a senior editor at The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @mzhemingway

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