Among the many consequences of Donald Trump’s ascendancy in modern American politics is a renewed and deepened hostility for the press, not only among his far-right base, but within the general electorate.
In recent decades, trust in media has plummeted from a high of 72% who had a great deal or fair amount of trust in 1976, thanks in large part to Watergate coverage, down to a historic low of 32% in 2016. Trust ticked back up to 45% in 2018 and, among Democrats, is actually the highest it’s been in 20 years.
You might not know it to listen to many of the 2020 contenders for president, however. As media watchers have noted, Democrats are starting to sound a lot like President Trump, who has made attacking the media less an art form than a blunt-object game of whack-a-mole.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has long had a contentious relationship with the media, occasionally snapping or even yelling at reporters who ask questions he doesn’t appreciate, has taken up one of Trump’s favorite laments — that The Washington Post is beholden to Amazon owner Jeff Bezos.
At a speech in New Hampshire, Sanders floated the baseless claim:
”I talk about (Amazon’s taxes) all the time. And then I wonder why The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why.”
The Post’s editor Marty Baron flatly denied this charge, telling CNN’s Oliver Darcy, “Sen. Sanders is a member of a large club of politicians — of every ideology — who complain about their coverage. Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”
Sanders’ camp, however, isn’t new to these smear campaigns. Campaign manager Faiz Shakir has also claimed that pharmaceutical companies sway media coverage through advertising, while providing no evidence for the attack.
Self-help guru and presidential candidate Marianne Williamson has made the same suggestion, attacking Anderson Cooper’s comments about suicide and anti-depressants, calling it irresponsible, “given how many pharmaceutical companies advertise on your show.”
Frontrunner Joe Biden has also taken up the blame-the-media strategy, with adviser Symone Sanders suggesting that Biden’s recent gaffes — some of which have been downright bizarre and deeply troubling to his own supporters — are a “press narrative, not a voter narrative.” His press secretary TJ Ducklo has offered the same explanation.
Other candidates, like Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, have also slammed the media for their campaign coverage, or lack thereof. “Me and my campaign,” Gabbard complained, “have been on the receiving end of very intentional smear efforts trying to undermine our campaign coming through, you know, NBC News quoting articles that are completely baseless.”
One could brush all this off as the requirements of campaigning. Both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg have predictably swung at Fox News, which makes some sense, lazy as it might be.
But it’s going beyond that.
Some on the left are blaming the media for being insufficiently opinionated when it comes to covering Trump.
Beto O’Rourke, in the wake of the horrific mass shooting in El Paso, lashed out at a reporter for asking what Trump can do in response, imploring the media to “connect the dots” between Trump and a mass shooter.
Earlier, a series of New York Times headlines that were viewed as insufficiently opinionated were the subject of outrage and derision among liberals who demanded the paper revise them to reflect a more definitively anti-Trump viewpoint.
It’s a new era in politics when the left is swinging just as hard against the press as the right usually does. We can arguably thank Trump for inviting the illiberal charges, and presumably this will only worsen.
The media is not above scrutiny by any means, and should be held accountable for its coverage. But these attacks on the press by the left, motivated entirely by politics and self-interest, are just as bad in meaning and effect — if not in tone and volume — as the president’s. And all that does is bolster his argument that we are the enemy of the people.