Dipping trust ratings for TV news reveal how cable TV news poisons our view of all news media
There's something telling about the new poll released on Americans' trust levels for TV news outlets -- besides the fact that Comedy Central, the home of fake news shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, sits on the list.
It's the fact that the outlet named as most trusted by the biggest percentage of 800 people polled, Fox News, is also the least trusted.
Public Policy Polling says 41 percent of those polled trusted Fox News, compared to 46 percent who do not. Three years ago, those numbers were quite different, with Fox News trusted by 49 percent of respondents and distrusted by 37 percent. This year, public broadcaster PBS was the only TV news source to draw more trust ratings than distrust, with 52 percent of those polled saying they trusted the network, compared to 29 percent who did not.
I write about this dynamic in my new book Race-Baiter, noting a Pew Center poll which says that there is one platform which dominates how people view the news media more than any other: cable news channels.
"It is clear that television news outlets, specifically cable news outlets, are central to people's impressions of the news media," said the study. "when asked what first comes to mind when they think of news organizations, 63 percent volunteer the name of a cable news outlet...only five percent mention a national newspaper..."
What is obvious about certain kinds of cable news outlets, is two dynamics: The drive to reflect a political worldview means those who don't share that worldview will distrust the channel, even though partisanship is clearly the key to success in cable TV news.
And politically partisan cable TV news outlets often succeed the way politicians do: by demonizing and denigrating rivals.
Consider this episode, highlighted by the liberal media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, where Fox News Channel star Bill O'Reilly criticized NBC for not covering the recent controversy involving President Obama's legal justifications for using drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
The problem: NBC News reporter Michael Isikoff broke the story, revealing secret documents which laid out the president's justifications.
So what does that do to our view of all media, when so many people's impressions of "the media" are formed mostly by cable news?
"The business model of conservative media is built on two elements," wrote conservative commentator David Frum in a 2011 commentary for New York magazine that I quote in Race-Baiter. "Provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel). As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly in the Obama era. As journalism, not so much."
I think Frum's notion can be expanded to channels such as MSNBC, Fox Business Channel and CNBC, all of which have indulged in politically partisan programming to varying degrees.
There's even a divide along racial lines, with the new PPP poll showing Fox News with just 29 percent of trust among African Americans -- Race-Baiter details how a focus on scary black people has been a significant part of Fox News Channels' strategy -- compared to 57 percent trust among black respondents for MSNBC, which has the most diverse anchor lineup and took a strong stand on prosecuting George Zimmerman for shooting unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin last year.
If you want to hear me talk further on these ideas, stop by my presentation at 6: 30 p.m. Tuesday, in the Main Library at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater Campus, or my luncheon speech to the Tampa Tiger Bay Club at 11:30 a.m. Feb. 15 in Maestro's, the restaurant at the Straz Center.
Because, as media grows more partisan and polarized, our cynicism about the process will only grow deeper.