We have often discussed the increasing bias and advocacy in major media in the United States. While cable networks have long catered to political audiences on the left or right, mainstream newspapers and networks now openly frame news to fit a political narrative. With the exception of Fox and a couple of other smaller news outlets, that slant is heavily to the left. What is most striking about this universal shift toward advocacy journalism (including at journalism schools) is that there is no evidence that it is a sustainable approach for the media as an industry. While outfits like NPR allow reporters to actually participate in protests and the New York Times sheds conservative opinions, the new poll shows a sharp and worrisome division in trust in the media. Not surprisingly given the heavy slant of American media, Democrats are largely happy with and trusting of the media. Conversely, Republicans and independents are not. The question is whether the mainstream media can survive and flourish by writing off over half of the country.
The new study from the non-partisan Pew Research Center shows a massive decline in trust among Republicans. Five years ago, 70 percent of Republicans said they had at least some trust in national news organizations. In 2021, that trust is down to just 35 percent.
Conversely, and not surprisingly, 78 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents saying they have “a lot” or “some” trust in the media. When you just ask liberal Democrats, it jumps to 83 percent.
For those looking for echo-journalism that reaffirms their assumptions, liberals are more likely to realize such confirmation bias on networks and cable programs. For conservatives and others (see below), they are largely limited to looking to Fox News and a couple other sites to get the other side of stories. This has worked incredibly well for Fox which has rivaled the national networks in some time slots. However, it is not good in the long run for American media, which is jettisoning much of the country in its coverage. We need healthy and multiple news outlets to give citizens a reliable and trusted body of journalism.
The question is whether news programs can sustain themselves by effectively writing off half of the country. It will require a higher percentage of liberals and Democrats reading and watching these siloed programs.
That does not appear to be the case. Fox News remains the most dominant cable network. (For full disclosure, I appear as a legal analyst on Fox). The recent numbers are staggering.
Fox News Channel (FNC) was rated as holding 94 of the top 100 live telecasts on all of cable TV in August. Fox’s average prime-time audience (2.5 million) is now routinely double MSNBC’s (1.229 million) and triple CNN’s (819,000). In “the demo” of viewers under 55, Fox is also beating the other networks. Thirteen of the top 14 cable-news shows were on FNC.
CNN has dropped in “trust” while Fox has risen. Moreover, CNN has lost 68 percent of its viewership. While all news outfits are down from the heady days of the impeachments and elections, this is a nose-bleed of a drop for any new organization. I still have friends working at CNN and I worked with the network for decades. We need a strong array of news outlets, including different views of stories on opinion programs. This is an industry wide crisis of trust. This poll is bad news for the industry which is based first and foremost on trust.
Moreover, the Pew Research Center released a journalism project entitled How Americans Navigated the News in 2020: A Tumultuous Year in Review that surprised many in showing that more Democrats were watching Fox than assumed by most commentators. As Forbes reported, “the Fox News viewership actually consists of more than just Trump devotees — that, in fact, there are more Democrats on a regular basis watching Fox than you might expect.”
I have been a columnist for three decades and I have worked for NBC, MSNBC, CBS, BBC, and Fox as a legal analyst. I have watched with increasing alarm as the media has openly embraced advocacy journalism even in mainstream news reporting. At the same time, we have witnessed the drop in viewership and readership in media outlets overall. Clearly, part of this trend is due to the rise of digital sources and the impact of the Internet. However, fewer people trust the media and the effect of the bias on many programs is to reduce the population of news consumers to roughly half. While national media has always had a liberal slant, the bias is now extreme, obvious, and consistent across platforms. The result is like operating in a country with half of our population by design.
The embrace of advocacy journalism has worked on an individual level for journalists and editors to protect their own positions. However, it could be killing the profession, particularly among non-cable outlets. The fact is that people have become used to echo journalism and it is not likely to change in cable programming (which has always been heavily opinion based in the evenings). Yet, newspapers and outlets like NPR are now openly and consistently biased in coverage from avoiding coverage of some stories to soft-peddling other stories. While NPR remains a massive news organization, it has also experienced declining numbers.
Cable networks will continue to feature more opinion-based news. However, it is the extent of the bias that has led to a stampede of viewers. Viewers now face virtual blackouts of news like the Hunter Biden laptop story on both cable and network shows. At the same time, social media companies are actively banning opposing views on major news stories. That leaves conservative, independent, and just inquisitive viewers with few options for news. Yet, the alienation from much of the country leaves most media outlets dividing up a smaller and smaller pie of news consumers. The new poll suggests that this is not enough to sustain many of our media platforms which may have to return to the center or face starvation on the edges.
As a law professor, I am particularly concerned that the drop in trust will impact our political system. People simply no longer believe what is being reported on sites like NPR or NYT. The result is that it is more difficult to identify what is false or unsupported.
I have worked in the media for almost three decades and, for the first time, I am uncertain of the future for American media for the next decade if these trends continue. At some point, the media will have to recognize that journalism means little if fewer and fewer people want to read it or watch it.