Why Trump Is Right About Media Bias, But Wrong About 'Fake News'

Last week CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza wrote an editorial about the President. It concerned a single tweet, launched Wednesday during the Trump’s morning cabinet meeting with the hosts of Fox and Friends, where he claimed that 91% of the news stories about him are “negative.”

Here’s the full body of the tweet:

What concerned Cillizza, and was indeed the same thing that caught my eye, was the President’s conflation of fake and negative news. It would appear, in the mind of Donald Trump, that those two things are the same. Cillizza argues very well in his piece, pointing out that accuracy of information determines fakeness of coverage, not spin.

He charges Trump with creating a state of hostility between the American people and the news media, a condition which has led some 77% of poll respondents to say that TV and print media – across the board – report “fake news.” According to a Gallup poll, 45% of Americans when asked could not name a single objective news source.

This atmosphere of mistrust between the public and the news media is dangerous to the state of democracy, Cillizza rightly concludes. He urges Americans to think about the President’s own bias in identifying negative news stories as fake ones, asking them not to take him at his word.

While I have tremendous respect for Cillizza and agree with his criticism of a man who has routinely demonstrated a willingness to lie in public about the veracity of news stories, I also have to acknowledge that his argument is a bit simplistic and disingenuous.

Here’s what I mean.

In his piece, he offers this mea culpa on behalf of the news media, “The media -- me included -- does make mistakes. We're human. When it happens, we publicly correct the record. Trump seizes on those mistakes as incontrovertible evidence that the media is hopelessly fake.” 

Cillizza’s ‘pobody’s nerfect’ defense does not even begin to address the feeling of animosity that the American people have for the news media. When I say news media, I mean all of it. I’m not talking about the (minority, remember) of Trump supporters who lap up Breitbart and Fox news. Nor do I mean the (also minority, see how easy it is to polarize?) of HuffPo acolytes and Vox people. I mean the meaty center of Americans who believe that the news media runs stories that aren’t true.

Because they do.

It has become increasingly difficult for a reasonable person to see a story that turns out to be inaccurate and not conclude that it was broadcast or published for ideological reasons. Sometimes nefarious reasons. These are the same Americans who understand that their election was, to some degree, the target of an influence campaign by the Russians. They are justifiably gun-shy when it comes to believing that the press just made a mistake.

Mistakes are the privilege of a simpler time in journalism.

While the President is usually dead wrong when he labels something fake news - according to FactCheck.org he made 320 false claims of fake news in 2017 – he is not wrong about the underlying issue. Which is that everyone in the media has an agenda.

Whether it is a benevolent or nefarious one depends largely on your political point of view, but the reality is that most news outlets are beholden to customers and advertisers and publish stories that are more likely to cater to a certain base. That does not mean that the factual content of those stories can’t be dead on, I believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases the quality of big-name American journalism is very high, but the bias still asserts itself quietly in the background.

When I watch a Fox News story, even if the facts are accurate, I can’t help but think, “This is the network where Sean Hannity works. These people are working an angle.” It’s the same feeling a conservative would have watching Rachel Maddow.

Those feelings are fair because both Fox and MSNBC are grinding axes. Thinking differently would be deluded.

Which is why I also don’t truck with Cillizza’s assessment that 45% of Americans being unable to name a neutral source is cause for alarm. I can’t believe the number is only 45%. If we could get it up over 90% that would be ideal. News sources aren’t neutral.

Consumers of news media need to understand more fully – as they are undoubtedly well on their way to understanding – that bias in the media is not a disqualification from truth. Bias does not make a particular story wrong or fake; it just demands increased awareness from the consumer.

What the media needs to do to re-earn the trust of Americans is admit this bias and move on. “Yeah, the majority of people who work here are left/right leaning but dammit if we don’t do our best to get the facts straight.” Imagine a media where bias is declared, not just implied. Would you have the same confidence in the news sources you visit routinely, or would you try to expand your horizons and see what the other side is saying? You know, just to be sure.

There’s also a refreshing honesty to a declaration of bias, because it’s nothing new. We can fantasize about Kronkite or Murrow all we like, but they were beholden to similar forces. If nothing else, to their own sense of right and wrong.

So let me break the ice – I am a socialist who tends to fall on the left of most issues, and all the facts cited in this article are true. You can click the links and vet them yourself. Nothing about my personal beliefs will change that.

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