So now, two months into his presidency, we have a full-on war between the Trump administration and the media, with escalation on both sides. Trump’s incessant efforts to brand the “dishonest” media as trafficking in “fake news” culminated in Sean Spicer infamously barring CNN, the New York Times and other news organizations from a press briefing.The Times, seemingly in response, aired a “The Truth is Hard” ad during the Oscars, ending with “The truth is more important now than ever.” Where is this going to end?
Might Trump be accidentally stoking a revitalization of an industry that has been on life support for some time? The “failing” New York Times has boasted 132,000 new subscriptions since the election and The Washington Post announced it would hire 60 new journalists, expanding its newsroom by more than 8 percent.
And they are engaged in a crucial tug-of-war to win the public’s trust. A Fox poll done February 11 – 13 found 45 percent of registered voters trust the Trump administration more than news reporters to “tell the public the truth,” while just a week later a Quinnipiac poll found that 52 percent of registered voters said they trust the news media more than Trump; only 37 percent said they choose Trump. Each poll had a margin of error of about 3 percent, not enough to explain the 8‑point shift. Trust, it seems, is now a moving target, with very high stakes.
Thus, fact-checking has become a new passion. NPR has set up a “politics: fact check” website to itemize Trump’s “false claims” and a “Trump Ethics Monitor” to expose possible conflicts of interest. And the language in some outlets has become blunt. In reporting on Trump’s instantly infamous February 16 press conference, at which he claimed that “drugs are cheaper than candy bars” and asked a black reporter if she could set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, NPR’s Scott Horsley said simply, “what’s being massacred are the facts.” ABC’s chief White House correspondent, Jonathan Karl on ABC, one of many to debunk Trump’s assertion that he had “the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan,” said simply, “That’s not even close to being true.” CBS news has a semi-regular feature, “Checking the Facts,” in which anchor Scott Pelley, to cite just one example, said Trump’s claim about his big electoral victory “bent history out of shape,” because the win came down to a mere 77,774 votes in only three states. And a news peg has emerged about the state of Trump’s mental health. Jake Tapper on CNN, who has been admirably aggressive, told Wolf Blitzer the press conference was “unhinged,” emphasizing that Trump had “said things that were not true.”
But fact-checking the news media itself matters, too, as does noting its ongoing erasures and persistent superficiality. Tapper made a big mistake when he speculated that Trump’s performance “might play well with the 44 percent of the population” that voted for him. That’s false. Only 60 percent of eligible voters actually voted, meaning Trump was elected by only 27 percent of eligible voters, not 44 percent of the country. That’s a big difference, and merits constant repetition when referring to Trump’s “base.” When reporters go to some diner in Iowa to check in with Trump voters, they need to remind us that just over one-fourth of eligible voters put this guy in office.
And despite their new sense of mission, the networks still only give us about 12 minutes of news; after the few lead stories we’re back to fluff about the merits of walking and the future of Nascar. One story they could cover, that we haven’t heard much about: Trump voters who may regret their decision. The Tumblr page Trumpgrets collects Twitter posts directed to @realDonaldTrump expressing ire. Sample comments include “Shut up about the Apprentice,” “I fucking regret voting for you, a illiterate 5 year old,” and “want fake news? Seems everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth.”
And what about the 90 million eligible voters who didn’t vote? Where are the interviews with them at the proverbial diners and coffee shops? Will they sit on their hands in the future?
Fifty-one percent of Trump supporters, according to a Huffington Post poll, agree that the media is “an enemy to people like you.” So facts may not change some Trump voters’ minds, although the comments on “Trump regrets” suggest that others are swayable. If news organizations are going to win the trust war — which they must — they need to ignore his petulant anti-press tweets and drill down not only into the facts, but also into the dire implications of his unfolding agenda, where public opinion is at odds with nearly everything he proposes doing.