When you move beyond the flap of the moment—a CNN correspondent repeatedly interrupting the president-elect, Buzzfeed irresponsibly publishing unproven rumors—the news business is facing a moment of truth.
Can people trust the media to provide a basic set of facts?
The verdict, in the court of public opinion, increasingly appears to be no. And this goes beyond the substantial question of whether the same journalists who botched the election can cover Donald Trump fairly.
The word “gatekeepers” gets a bad rap these days. There was a time when the major national newspapers, magazines and networks pretty much controlled the news agenda. It’s a healthy thing that the web and social media have broken that monopoly, even though the online environment can often turn toxic.
But if the mainstream media are widely viewed as partisan and untrustworthy, they can’t play the gatekeeper role at all—or even a validating role to establish basic facts. It all just becomes noise.
That’s why the unverified dossier on Trump, posted by Buzzfeed even as the website expressed serious doubts about its credibility, is such a symbolic turning point. The MSM’s core conceit is that whatever their shortcomings or mistakes, they try to arrive at the best obtainable version of the truth. This was a thumb in the eye to that concept. In fairness, several other news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Fox, had that material and chose not to publish the uncorroborated insinuations, and CNN withheld the salacious details).
I’ve long chronicled how politicians selectively quote media accounts when it suits their purpose. A conservative will say, “Even the New York Times says…” A liberal will say, “Even Fox News reports…” But you hear less of that now that many people view the whole establishment as part of the “corrupt media.”
This isn’t only the indictment of Trump supporters. Hillary Clinton’s former aides have made clear in recent weeks that they think the press cost her the election by being too soft on Trump and inflating her email scandal.
But it is the right that has led the drive to undermine trust in the media, with plenty of help from media outlets themselves. And that has decimated the notion of the press as a neutral arbiter. Media fact-checkers were also dismissed as biased.
Even the conservative media weren’t spared. Trump openly warred with National Review, the Weekly Standard and, at times, Fox News, all of which had commentators that denigrated him, while favoring newer voices in talk radio and websites like Breitbart.
But with distrust of the media at record highs, the game is increasingly being played without an umpire to call balls and strikes.
That, sadly, has consequences for the country, and not just those of us who work under the tattered banner of journalism.