Last week a team of New York Times reporters made one of their periodic forays into Trump country. Their mission was to ask Trump voters in Media, Pennsylvania, whether they supported the president’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.
They did indeed, but not for the reasons given by the White House. According to a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Comey had to go because he had unfairly cast public aspersions on Hillary Clinton during the FBI’s investigation of her private email server. Never mind that Trump himself later admitted to Lester Holt that wasn’t the real reason. It was the official line coming from the White House, yet Trump voters heard the opposite: that Comey had been fired because he hadn’t been tough enough on Clinton.
“I was in the military,” a security company employee named Jack Deorio told the Times. “If I had done the same thing, I’d have been in Leavenworth.” Added Augie Pantellas, a 73-year-old former boxer: “I really believe — you might think I’m going overboard — she was probably one of the biggest criminals in American history.” Lock her up!
I found the comments of these uninformed voters to be both amusing and disturbing — and something else as well. At a time of an emerging crisis over what the president knew about the Russia connection and when he knew it, we are so hopelessly divided by partisanship and tribal loyalties that we are incapable of hearing anything except what we want to hear.
Even though this polarization affects both liberals and conservatives, the data suggests the problem is much worse on the right. As I’ve written previously, a study of social-media sharing patterns showed that Clinton supporters immersed themselves in a fairly wide range of traditional and liberal news sources while Trump supporters gathered tightly around the extreme-right website Breitbart News and its ilk. Public trust in the news media has been eroding for years among Democrats (51 percent give them a thumb’s up) — and has fallen off a cliff among Republicans (17 percent).
And now, just as journalists are competing to see who can expose the truth about Trump’s ties to Russia first, we learn that a large percentage of Republicans don’t even accept the watchdog role of the press. According to the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of Democrats believe “that criticism from news organizations keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done.” Only 42 percent of Republicans hold the same view. Incredibly, about 75 percent of Democrats and Republicans supported that watchdog role just four years ago. (We talked about the Pew study on “Beat the Press” last Friday.)
Republican politicians have been running against the press for decades, of course. But given the rapid deterioration of trust in the media among conservatives, we can’t blame it all on Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. Clearly something new and different is going on. I would attribute some of it to the harsh, hard-edged tone of Breitbart, which goes far beyond what we’ve become accustomed to from Fox News, and to a president who has made delegitimizing the press one of his main priorities. Trump’s brutally low approval ratings have no doubt brought out the paranoia among his dwindling band of true believers as well.
But even if having a president who denounces news organizations as “the enemy of the American People!” and purveyors of “fake news” is novel and potentially dangerous, it’s important to remember that we’ve been here before. The other day the historian Jonathan Darman dug up a dispatch the Times filed from Alabama in January 1974, eight months before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency rather than face impeachment and removal from office. The paragraph reads:
A local leader of the anti-black Citizens’ Council called to complain that Watergate had been invented by the news media. A woman called to say that the news media “is just looking for bad things to say about our President.”
The last time we found ourselves in this position, the press was, for the most part, a trusted voice, even if it did not always earn that trust. This time we are regarded with skepticism by one side and with loathing and contempt by the other. Skepticism we can handle; frankly, it’s healthier for democracy than blind faith. Loathing and contempt, though, eat away at the foundations of democracy.
Can the press hold the president to account when a significant proportion of the public doesn’t believe anything it reports? We will soon find out.