Chuck Todd Is Wrong on Why the Media Are Distrusted
The other day, in a column published by The Atlantic, NBC's Chuck Todd appealed to his colleagues in the media to start "fighting back" against what he calls President Trump's "campaign to destroy the legitimacy of the American news media."
It's an interesting piece that's definitely worth a read. Todd makes some valid points, especially in regard to the importance of a free press in a free society, and how Trump's "fake news" offensive has helped drag public confidence in the media to dangerously low levels.
Still, Todd's harshest words weren't reserved for the president, but rather an entity that he blames for creating "the conditions" that allowed someone like Trump to brand the media as the "enemy of the people," and actually have that message resonate with a large number of Americans.
But before you get too excited over the premise of a prominent member of the mainstream media exercising some serious self-reflection, and condemning decades of trust-squandering liberal bias within his profession, let me assure you that this did not happen.
No, Todd actually let the mainstream media off pretty easy. While he did acknowledge the existence of journalistic bias, he reduced it to its most incidental forms:
"The questions [reporters] ask, and the stories they pursue, are shaped by things as simple as geography. I grew up in Miami; I follow Cuban politics more closely than many other Americans did. As a result, when I covered the White House, I was more likely than my colleagues to ask questions about Cuba."
While regional bias certainly exists, it's not why people distrust the media.
Todd gets a little closer with this statement:
"Critics, for example, may be pointing to the way that certain journalists pay more attention to some issues than to others, or complaining about the unquestioned assumptions reflected in journalists’ work."
Sure, that's part of it, but Todd ignores the much larger complaints about the media's widespread political and ideological biases.
There have long been glaring double standards when it comes to how Republicans are covered versus Democrats. These inclinations are well-documented and were perhaps illustrated best during the Obama era.
For some, the recent passing of John McCain brought back memories of the 2008 presidential election cycle, when Barack Obama was treated as royalty by a fawning press, while McCain's campaign had to constantly fight for coverage (when the New York Times wasn't accusing the Arizona senator of having an affair with a lobbyist).
Of course, McCain finally got some media attention after asking Sarah Palin to be his running mate, but in the closing weeks before Americans voted, a study showed that only 14% of McCain's coverage was positive in tone. Obama's positive coverage was more than double that.
After winning the presidency, Obama joked at a White House Correspondents Dinner that everyone in attendance had voted for him. Only, it wasn't so much a joke. The media's love-fest lasted for the duration of his presidency, and was visible in everything from an eagerness to accommodate his class warfare narratives, to aiding him in political debates, to demonstrating a breathtaking lack of interest in stories like Benghazi and the spread of ISIS throughout Iraq (which would have been used to crucify George W. Bush, had he still been in office).
The media has been presenting liberal viewpoints as prevailing wisdom (and conservative viewpoints as misguided and intolerant) for as far back as many of us can remember. Stories are routinely framed with deference to progressive social-justice themes and identity politics. Key elements of stories, that would lend credence to conservative sensibilities, are often omitted or glossed over. Liberal causes are typically presented as righteous while conservative causes are portrayed as callous. Movements like the Tea Party are vilified while movements like Occupy Wall Street are romanticized and legitimized.
The list goes on and on, and none of this is new. Yet, the liberal bubble that encases most of the media in this country isn't seen as a culprit by Chuck Todd. Instead, Todd blames distrust in his profession on (you guessed it) conservatives — specifically the conservatives on television and radio who've been pointing out examples of liberal media bias for decades.
In other words, it's not the cheating husband who ruined the marriage. It's the fault of the friend who told the wife that her husband was cheating on her.
Todd takes particular aim at the late Roger Ailes, describing his programming strategy at Fox News as being less about a platform for alternative views, than it was an effort to make the public "hate" the other side (aka Democrats and liberals). He even goes as far as to accuse Ailes of creating a "mythology of a biased press."
Mythology. You can't make this stuff up, folks.
Narrowing down the argument for a moment, has Todd honestly never watched MSNBC (which he appears on regularly)? Has he not paid any attention to the network's longtime, routine demonization of Republicans and conservatives, going back to at least the Bush administration?
Does Todd put no stock at all in the numerous examples documented over the years by people like Bernard Goldberg? Does he not lend credence to his former colleague, Tim Russert, who believed that close-mindedness on the subject of media bias was "totally contrary to who we're supposed to be as journalists"?
It would have been interesting to hear Todd's thoughts on NBC's efforts to block Ronan Farrow's reporting on the Harvey Weinstein story, but unfortunately, that topic wasn't mentioned in his Atlantic piece.
Again, Todd does make some valid points in the column, but those points are much more applicable to what's been going on in the Trump era than they were to the pre-Trump era. While the Fox News of yesteryear undeniably provided a plank for (usually legitimate) charges of media bias, that's not primarily what we're dealing with now.
Identifying media bias isn't the same as declaring news to be "fake." These are very different accusations with very different consequences. Bias is often unconscious (which is why people like me advocate for more ideologically diverse newsrooms) and it is by no means a fabrication of facts.
What Trump has done with his "fake news" campaign is take a legitimate problem (media bias) and twist it into a hyperbolic, highly dishonest narrative ("the media is just making things up") that he uses for his own political purposes. Todd is wrongly conflating the two charges.
Trump's strategy is indeed harmful in our free society, and he should be called out (and called out loudly) whenever he employs it. The media-conservatives who go beyond exposing bias, by echoing and promoting Trump's "fake news" angle, should be called out as well. Some of the common violators Todd points out include Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson.
I also don't have a problem with Todd appealing to his colleagues in the media to aggressively defend their work (when it's fair & accurate). That's all fine and good. I want a reliable press, and if the reporting is credible, it should be defended.
But if one is truly alarmed by how little faith the public places in today's news media (as I believe Todd is), the first step is to recognize the true origins of the problem. People like Ailes and Limbaugh didn't create this mistrust. The establishment media did. And the problem won't be effectively addressed until proper responsibility is taken, and serious internal efforts are made to raise journalistic standards.
Will that happen? Not when people like Chuck Todd are clinging to the notion that a "biased media" is a myth.