It is not often that we use this space to report on the state of the media, but three national stories and one regional development prompt a need for reflection on discouraging matters that should not be ignored.
Journalists, the vast majority of whom care only about reporting facts and the impact of those facts, have been repeatedly called the “enemy of the people” by the president. We are trained to have thick skins, ignore such belligerence and continue to do the work, but the attacks, over time, have had an effect on how the public sees the media.
A recent Gallup poll says Americans remain largely distrustful of the news media, with only 41 percent having a great deal or fair amount of trust in newspapers, television and radio to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” That’s a dip of four points from last year, says Gallup, though it’s still much better than in 2016, when only 32 percent said they had a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the news they consumed.
We bring this up to comment on certain self-inflicted wounds, on developments in which prominent journalists have stood up for the facts, on a horrifying video that attacks the press and a sad day for a Maine community, which has just lost its newspaper.
First, the embarrassing tale of a major television news network seemingly trying to bury important reporting on two alleged sexual predators — Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein and disgraced former “Today Show” host Matt Lauer. In a book by reporter Ronan Farrow, a compelling case is made alleging the major network conspired with Weinstein to stop reporting on Weinstein’s harassment of women so that the movie mogul wouldn’t release what he knew about Lauer’s similar behavior. In Farrow’s book, “Catch and Kill,” former NBC producer Brooke Nevils alleges Lauer raped her during their time covering the Sochi Olympics; Lauer vehemently denies the claim, saying the sex was consensual.
Farrow and ex-NBC investigative reporter Rich McHugh describe NBC telling them to “stand down” on reporting about Weinstein, and now the network has serious credibility problems with its staff and the public.
At Fox News, anchor Shepard Smith suddenly and without warning to his audience and most colleagues, announced after 23 years his departure from the network last week, with this pointed quote: “Even in our currently polarized nation, it’s my hope that the facts will win the day. That the truth will always matter. That journalism and journalists will thrive.” He left the set immediately after, taking the freight elevator out of the building, staff said.
Smith was a bit of an anomaly on the set of Fox, seen as a balanced reporter at a network considered by most as very conservative. In fact, his reporting was frequently attacked by President Trump. Smith’s departure raises questions about whether someone who can play it down the middle can or will replace him.
Which brings us to a video meme shown at a conference at the Trump National Doral resort in Miami last week. The conference was held by the group America Priority, and one session featured a church massacre scene from the movie “Kingsman: The Secret Service” with Trump’s head superimposed on the body of a man opening fire on the “Church of Fake News.” Superimposed on the bodies of churchgoers were the logos of major news networks and the faces of Trump political opponents.
Alex Phillips, the conference organizer, told The New York Times the content was submitted by third parties and was not associated with the conference in any capacity.
The video has outraged many, including those at CNN, which is featured in a closing scene depicting Trump stabbing a reporter with a CNN logo in the head with a stake. The White House has condemned the video.
Finally, we were saddened to learn that a Biddeford, Maine, newspaper, the Journal Tribune, had closed its doors, ending a 135-year run. The closing will lead to a dearth of news coverage for the community, and the Journal Tribune joins about 2,000 newspapers nationwide that have shuttered, the result of changing readership and advertising priorities for local businesses.
The Boston Globe’s story on the newspaper’s closing featured the bitter irony that three people among those who said they will miss the paper the most — the mayor, superintendent of schools and head of a local food pantry — admitted they no longer subscribed.
These anecdotes speak to the precarious footing on which truth-telling exists these days. Before our eyes, trust is evaporating, allowed to slip away by poor decisions by media, by a president hell bent on taking down all who would question him or his motives, and by a general neglect by the citizenry to stay informed.
Today, trust is under assault. Few Americans occupy the center of the ring; most are found in either of two corners. The search for balance is abandoned in favor of a search for reinforcement of one’s own biases. And the ugliness of that result can be seen in last week’s developments, lowlighted by the repugnant video.