The news media is taking hits from all sides, underscoring the bitter partisan divide and fierce war over the “official story” coming out of President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE’s Washington.
New controversies involving the nation’s largest newspapers, top editors and cable news personalities have unfolded on a near-daily basis, making the press a central character in the 2020 presidential cycle.
The outrage over coverage and attacks on the press are raining down from the left and the right, amplified by social media and the 24-hour cable networks, where Washington politics are dominating like never before.
Clicks, ratings and subscriptions are all up, but so are allegations of bias, social media pressures and questions about the news media’s integrity.
The media is facing questions about whether it is adapting quickly enough to the fast-changing landscape, in which the news itself appears to have become more partisan.
“It’s been trending this way for a while, but now it’s come to a boil,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications.
“Political news is all-encompassing now, and everything is seen through a partisan lens. Some of these outlets that used to be seen as objective as possible, the august institutions of the past era that covered these stories relatively objectively in the classic sense, there’s been a sea change along with the increasing partisanship of voters that has brought us to the point we’re at now,” Berkovitz added.
This week alone, Trump attacked right-leaning Fox News and left-leaning MSNBC.
Fox News, which employs some of Trump’s fiercest supporters, including prime-time host Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityTrump says Rittenhouse met with him in Florida Cheney knocks Ted Cruz: 'A real man would be defending his wife' Rittenhouse's mother asks for donations to legal fund MORE, has been a source of long-simmering frustration for the president, who believes the hard news division and anchors such as Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceBret Baier confirms his 'concerns' about Tucker Carlson's Jan. 6 documentary Rittenhouse says Biden defamed his character Surgeon general warns of uptick in COVID-19 cases as cold weather arrives MORE and Shepard Smith have been too tough on him.
Trump has also attacked Fox News’s polling, suggesting that the network’s surveys, which consistently find him trailing the 2020 Democratic hopefuls, are biased against him.
Trump’s latest frustration came after the network invited a Democratic National Committee (DNC) aide on the air for an interview.
The DNC promptly fundraised off of the president’s attacks, and several Fox News anchors swung back, expressing their annoyance with the president for failing to understand their role in news coverage.
Fox News host Neil Cavuto ended his Thursday show by tearing into the president, detailing several of the times that the president has called something fake that turned out to be true.
“First of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you,” Cavuto said. “I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you. Just report on you.”
The president also targeted MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, who reported this week that loans the president had taken out were co-signed by Russian oligarchs close to Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBiden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress More than 50 dead, one rescued in Russian mine explosion NATO to discuss ways to deter Russia: Lithuanian official MORE.
O’Donnell, an opinion host, retracted the report, acknowledging that the story had not been vetted by the news division and did not meet the network’s standards for reporting.
Thanks to Trump, MSNBC’s botched story became a days-long story in its own right, frustrating liberals and members of the media who say that press standards must be higher in the era of Trump to maintain the public’s trust against the constant attacks of “fake news” coming out of the White House.
“In the Trump era, there has been an effort to control the narrative by delegitimizing the sources of narratives that you don’t like,” said Steven Livingston, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University. “Trump is an equal opportunity abuser here, but there have been a slew of errors recently that don’t help the media.”
Attacks on the news media have long been a favorite pastime on the right, but the left is increasingly taking part.
Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Bernie Sanders' ex-spokesperson apprehensive over effectiveness of SALT deductions MORE (I-Vt.) has made attacking the “corporate media” a cornerstone of his campaign, complaining about a “Bernie blackout” and repeatedly highlighting instances in which he believes mainstream outlets such as The Washington Post give him unfavorable coverage.
Sanders has alleged that the billionaire owners and corporate executives at the major media outlets hate his anti-establishment message and that their disdain for him filters down into the coverage in the newspapers they own or run.
Progressive writer Jonathan Tasini told The Hill that he believes the news media is biased in favor of centrist Democrats and against liberal progressives.
“The biggest threat is the baked-in ideological bias that leads to traditional media outlets repeating misinformation and lies, which leads to things like the Iraq War, the phony government deficit hysteria and the pimping for so-called ‘free trade,’ and that deep bias hurts progressive views and candidates like Bernie Sanders just as much if not more,” Tasini said.
Also this week, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) made headlines for kicking a reporter for the right-wing news outlet Breitbart out of an event, saying that he “believes in the right to a free press” but that Breitbart “walks the line between being news and a perpetrator of hate speech.”
Many in Washington hold a dim view of much of Breitbart’s news coverage, and the organization has been called out for race-baiting. Yet some media insiders criticized the O’Rourke campaign’s decision, warning that it was something Trump would do to an outlet he despises.
“If this account is accurate, it’s a pretty weak move by Team Beto,” tweeted Noah Shachtman, editor in chief for The Daily Beast.
The news media is facing other pressures as well, ranging from the social media behavior of employees to backlash against coverage that the subscriber base finds lacking.
The New York Times has been a case study recently in the difficulties of traversing those minefields.
The Times demoted a top editor for tweets about female Democratic lawmakers that many viewed as offensive. A second political editor could face punishment after Breitbart uncovered years-old anti-Semitic tweets.
And reacting to liberal outrage on Twitter, the Times changed a headline that some said soft-pedaled one of Trump’s racial controversies. This week, the paper added a sentence to a story about the Tea Party after liberals demanded it account for alleged racism among some Tea Party members.
Experts say that the new reality is that partisan consumers on social media have more influence than they they’ve ever had and that outlets will in some instances have to bend to reader demands or watch as their subscribers take their business elsewhere.
“The media hates to be on the receiving end of analysis, but it’s easier and easier for dissatisfied people or groups to take a pound of flesh,” said Berkovitz.
“You can go after the media you don’t support with boycotts or pressure on advertisers, but increasingly you go after the media you do support. The Times has grown so much because of their digital subscriber base. News outlets today are much more sensitive to the people who are paying or clicking or commenting. They know exactly who is buttering their bread,” he added.