Mass Media Has Had its Humpty-Dumpty Moment

Politician talking into reporters' microphones.(Getty)

The events of recent months suggest that the mass media has had its humpty-dumpty moment and that America is well on its way to a time when not a single news media outlet has the respect of a majority of Americans.

A September 2020 Gallup poll showed only 10% of Republicans and 36% of independents have a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of trust in the mass media. The same poll showed 27% of Democrats had "not very much" or no trust in the mass media. Overall, 60% of Americans were skeptical or contemptuous of the mass media.

This isn't fair to the many journalists who are earnest straight-shooters. But on the right, few if any Republicans were surprised by the recent admission by The Washington Post that its huge Jan. 9 scoop about then-President Donald Trump's attempts to interfere in Georgia's vote count included two falsehoods — that, despite the Post's use of iron-clad quotation marks, Trump did not tell a top election official to "find the fraud," and he did not say she would be "a national hero" if she did so.

These Republicans can quickly recount mass media horror stories, and some of their gripes seem legit.

There is nothing close to hard evidence showing a Trump-Vladimir Putin conspiracy in 2016, and how could the leakiest administration in American history have suppressed the evidence if it existed?

And in the previous presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney took far more mass media heat for his awkward reference to "binders full of women" then incumbent President Barack Obama did for pretending for weeks that the Sept. 11-12, 2012, terror attacks on two U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya, were spontaneous reactions to an anti-Muslim YouTube video — the protesters just happened to have brought rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft machine guns and truck-mounted artillery.

But on the left, the mass media face a much different reason to worry. Many Democrats — including some journalists — no longer want journalists to be earnest straight-shooters.

In the old days, the leftist critique of the mass media was encapsulated in "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media," the 1988 book by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. It argued that the media enforce a pro-corporate, "neoliberal" worldview that accepts an American status quo that is far too complacent about vast societal inequities.

Such Democrats could quickly recount mass media horror stories, and some of their gripes seemed legit.

Crime is mostly a young man's game, yet the U.S. criminal justice system — even with recent reforms — makes it brutally difficult for young offenders to redeem themselves.

And on health care, it is deeply perverse that the U.S. government pays more per capita for subsidized care than nations with single-payer systems that help a far higher percentage of residents.

But as illustrated by the current brouhaha over Substack — which offers paid subscriptions to the newsletters of individual writers, many of whom are journalists — the left's critique of the media now goes beyond the still-popular Herman-Chomsky view.

In an era in which journalism jobs are fading away, one would assume that journalists would celebrate the emergence of a new platform that helps individual writers make a living. Instead, some are furious. They say that since Substack paid advances to attract some writers they don't like, it is a loathsome publisher akin to Breitbart — not just an innocent platform. A recent piece about Substack in The New Yorker included this striking observation: "a cultural turn toward journalistic individualism might not be in the collective interest."

In the larger context of the article, this looks like a call for the silencing of The Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald and Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias, both on Substack after being pushed out of the very liberal media companies they helped launch. But it can be more broadly understood as implying this is an "end of history" moment for journalism in which views that do not meet litmus tests should not be heard — they're not in the "collective interest," you see.

Given the strength of the First Amendment, there always will be dissent and strong push-back against the view that journalism has evolved to a "just our facts," not a "just the facts," standard. There is also a real chance that the cultural sway of this view far exceeds its actual power to force societal change. If, for example, the reporting of CNN seems neutral on making college free to all — a foundational issue for progressives like Elizabeth Warren — there will no doubt be "Never CNN" Democrats. But it is hard to imagine them bringing the network down.

Yet is also hard to exaggerate how big a headache this all-the-news-we-see-fit-to-print dynamic creates for media companies that aspire to have broad audiences. That 2020 poll that showed 60% of Americans don't trust the mass media? Many journalists may end up remembering it as the good old days.

This article was originally published on (TNS).