Partisan division over the news media is nothing new; but something new – and more sinister – is certainly afoot.
Assessments of the fairness of news coverage have long varied by party identification, with each party perceiving news coverage of the presidency as less fair when their party occupies the White House. Partisan identification also shapes perceptions of media bias – views of whether the media are “liberal” or “conservative.”
Seething crowds ranting against the press at rallies held by the current occupant of the White House provide anecdotal evidence of a more sharply divisive tone. But there is something more systematic going on.
So what has changed?
A 2013 Pew Research Survey revealed a deep partisan divide, with 65% of Republicans viewing the media as liberal (17% conservative; 12% as neutral) and Democrats more evenly divided between 36% perceiving the media as liberal, 37% as conservative and 20% as neutral. But there was a critical area of common ground: 69% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats indicated in the survey that the press play a vital watchdog role, “keeping leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done.”
In just four years, that shared assessment vanished. Pew conducted a similar survey in 2017, and a review of the findings proves unsettling. While 89% of respondents identifying with the Democratic Party believe the media “keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done,” only 42% of Republicans believe this. What’s especially astonishing is that the figure for Republicans tracks that of Democrats upward during the financial crisis and the latter years of the Obama era. In fact, at the close of the Obama era, Republicans had a slightly higher preference for the media’s watchdog role, at 77%, versus 74% for Democrats.
The 47 percentage point gap in views of the role of the press as a check on government’s exercise of power between Republicans and Democrats is by far the highest ever recorded in the Pew Survey, which has been asking this question since 1985. The highest gap prior to this was 28 points, recorded during the George W. Bush administration in 2005.
An academic article on public attitudes toward the press by John Immerwahr and John Doble published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1982 – still close on the heels of the Watergate scandal – showed that citizens wanted evenhanded coverage of major news events and equal time to competing political candidates. Survey respondents also strongly supported the rights of reporters to criticize the president and of newspapers to print stories the president considers biased and inaccurate.
But partisanship has now produced an environment in which respect for those press freedoms is not shared across the political spectrum.
I’ve written previously about the deep perceptual divide in American society (and in the UK, as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the debate that has ensued), and the manner in which the arrival of new evidence – of, say, Russian contacts previously denied by people associated with this administration – only deepens the divide rather than drawing citizens toward common conclusions. By itself, the perceptual rift is not new.
What IS new is that the current administration and its backers have systematically undermined support for institutions that represent checks on its authority – and which also represent the bedrock of democracy.
In the realm of media perceptions, Republican political operatives have prepared the ground for years; the 2013 Pew Survey reveals evidence of this in a strong perception of “liberal” bias by Republicans. But, as I will write about next week, the intensified assault on institutions began with a systematic critique of the unemployment rate and the Bureau of Labor Statistics during the Obama Administration. Unable to accept evidence of a steadily declining unemployment rate following the financial crisis, right-wing political groups and think-tanks embarked on a systematic campaign to impugn the data and the institution producing them. The results were inconvenient, so the strategy was to label them a fiction.
We’ve moved well beyond a simple partisan divide. From a state of affairs in which adherents of each political party believe institutions are biased in favor of the other side, but embrace the value of the institutions and want them to be fair, we’ve arrived at a moment in which supporters of the party in power reject the institutions themselves. This gives license to the party in power to systematically undermine those institutions.
In his book, On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder underscores a lesson also advanced by leading scholars of fascism, such as Robert Paxton: institutions do not defend themselves. As Snyder points out, the error made by supporters of democratic institutions is “to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions – even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.”