Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: We may be a divided nation, but we’re united in not trusting the news media
Tuesday’s election made clear, once again, how politically divided we are as a nation. But there’s at least one thing Americans agree on across the political gulf: They don’t trust the news media.
A recent Gallup poll in conjunction with the Knight Foundation found that, although 84% of Americans agree the news media are crucial to the survival of democracy, two-thirds worry about it being biased. It’s our job as Americans to be skeptical of information attempting to manipulate us. Yet lately, distrust in the news is more than healthy skepticism: It’s outright hostility.
Some of this lack of trust can be laid at the feet of the Trump administration, which waged a relentless four-year campaign to undermine public confidence in media reports critical of the president. But some of the blame falls on the media, both on the left and right.
Each year since 1975, Americans’ trust in news sources has eroded further, and a new Pew Research Center poll reveals that Americans’ confidence in the news media is well below that in education, medicine, science and the military.
Numerous studies have found Fox News to be among the most biased and least accurate of popular news sources. Not only did its blatant cheerleading for President Trump severely undermine the network’s credibility as “fair and balanced,” studies have found that its viewers reject established science on issues such as climate change and are generally less informed than even people who watch no news at all. Yet, the network was the most watched over the summer and remains the most trusted news source by 65% of Republicans and those who lean toward that party.
The heavy reliance of Republicans on Fox made me pay more attention to the network in the run-up to the election. What I found most disturbing was the complete blurring of news and opinion.
An online news story from Fox News on Oct. 4 demonstrated one of the most common problems. The article was titled “Tucker: Biden used ‘illusion of reasonableness’ at debate to disguise plans to ‘tear down our system.’ ” There was nothing to indicate this article was opinion. Rather, it was cast as a news report, but the report was about what the highly opinionated Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson had to say about the first presidential debate. It quoted Carlson as saying that during the debate “Biden all but admitted onstage that he plans to tear down our system” while “nothing Trump said onstage was radical.”
The story was one of many on the website reporting on what one of its highly opinioned commentators had to say, as if that were actual news. Other stories deliberately distort the news to mollify their audience, which seems to lack the ability to apply critical thinking. In a country that depends on truth in reporting, this is akin to undermining democracy.
Fox News is in the bias confirmation business, and its success can be seen in the last four years of rising skepticism, especially among conservatives, on a range of issues, including COVID-19 risks, vaccine efficacy and the need for climate mitigation. The raising of doubts about proven facts — an effort embraced by President Trump — is like the iceberg ripping into the hull of the Titanic, letting the icy water of irrationality and “gut feelings” pull us under.
And Fox isn’t alone in abandoning the straightforward reporting of facts. Take this Oct. 8 article from the Washington Post: “Isolated in the White House, Trump struggles to project a sense of normalcy after canceled debate.” The article included passages such as: “President Trump has tried to project an image of strength and normalcy that belies his troubled circumstances,” and “Trump immediately lashed out,” and “the commission’s decision seemed to spark a frenzy of aggressive acrimony from Trump, and claims that were notable even by the president’s standards.” The article was filled with interpretation, opinion and hyperbole rather than just reporting what was said and by whom, yet nowhere did it have an “opinion” or “analysis” label.
The same editorial intrusions can be found in most newspapers and television networks. Before the last presidential debate, the “Today” show promoted a story as a “head-spinning development on the head-to-head debates.” To get that cute play on words required an injection of editorial hyperbole: “head-spinning development” (which it wasn’t). Recently, several Los Angeles news shows referred to the recovery of two sheriff’s deputies as “miraculous,” boldly introducing medical opinion.
Many journalists have become like poets at an open mic night, telling us the meaning of the sonnet they’re about to read lest we misinterpret it. But all these loaded editorial words grind down objectivity and therefore our trust in the source.
I regularly watch CNN and MSNBC, and I believe Don Lemon, Rachel Maddow, Jake Tapper, Chris Cuomo, Anderson Cooper and the rest of their reporters are smart and articulate. And I generally agree with almost everything they say. But I wince at the relentless and repetitious propagandizing they all engage in. Sometimes their “news” shows feel more like pep rallies.
As for newspapers, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Guardian are all excellent, and I continue to trust them. But it disturbs me how often I find melodramatic writing and editorial intrusions in all of them.
With the incursion of the Russian, Chinese and Iranian troll farms polluting our news sources, we have more need than ever for reliable and trustworthy gatekeepers of the news. We need journalists who rigorously check facts and sources to weed out propaganda, and we need stories presented with neutral language.
Thomas Jefferson emphasized the importance of news in a letter he wrote from Paris in 1787, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” The next part of Jefferson’s quote, often omitted, is even more important: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”
Jefferson clearly expected readers to use critical thinking in weighing the reliability of the words they read. The ethical burden of reporting the news without bias falls on the news media, but the patriotic burden of evaluating news reports falls on each citizen. Lately, both have fallen short of their responsibility.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, is the author of 16 books, including, most recently, “Mycroft & Sherlock — The Empty Birdcage.” www.kareemabduljabbar.com
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