How the media can save itself, before Donald Trump destroys it

How the media can save itself, before Donald Trump destroys it
© Getty Images

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' MORE has many enemies, but none that he battles with as much glee as the media. His hats say “Make America Great Again,” but his true battle cry is indisputably “Fake News.” 

Let’s be clear: The media is not, in fact, fake news. Reporters don’t conspire in dark rooms to invent stories, but that is not to say that the media doesn’t have issues. 

More than 1,300 communities have lost their former local news coverage. Multiple rounds of deregulation under both Democratic and Republican presidents have led to consolidation of media, homogenizing news and giving wealthy individuals and corporations more control over what Americans see, hear and read. Television and print news has plummeted in popularity as digital news rises.


And now? 69 percent of Americans say they’ve lost trust in the media over the past decade. For Republicans, that number is above 90 percent. 

Trump isn’t the only politician who has wised up to this trend. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) went viral when an impromptu interview ended with him saying, “Members of the press, what the f---?” Multiple candidates slammed The New York Times for its headline stating that “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” They understand that the public is fed up with the various failings of the media and that perhaps, like Trump, they can ride media criticism to higher approval ratings.

Let’s take a look at a few of the causes of this popular frustration.

We've all (finally) come to agree that the media is lacking in diversity, right? In addition to the well-documented lack of racial, religious and gender diversity, the ideological and class diversity is no better. When was the last time you saw a panel discussing the minimum wage include a person actually making minimum wage? And on ideology, Sunday panels are five times more likely to be skewed right than left, and that is with a very generous definition of “left.” This will be news to some, but the political spectrum doesn’t cap out on the left at former Obama staffers. There is an entire world of leftist thought that never gets invited on CNN or MSNBC, despite its policies being increasingly popular

We all get that bias in the media is an issue, but is it liberal or conservative bias that we should worry about? Or is it the obvious bias toward maintaining the economic and political status quo? That particular bias, while not often discussed, is obvious when you look at who makes it onto cable news airwaves.


Watch the news and you’ll see lobbyists, washed-up politicians and writers for think tanks. But how many activists can you spot? How many community organizers? How often will the media deem a primary challenger worthy of coverage? I think we all remember the media missing the rise of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezAyanna Pressley's 'squad' of congresswomen offers support after she opens up about alopecia Here are the 10 senators who voted against Trump's North American trade deal Artist paints Michelle Obama, other women as battered in campaign against domestic violence MORE (D-N.Y.), now perhaps the most dynamic, news-driving politician in the country.

Now let’s talk coverage. The media hammers certain stories into the ground. Think CNN on Malaysia Flight MH370Rachel Maddow dissecting every minute development in the Russia investigation month after month or Fox News mentioning Ocasio-Cortez over 3,000 times in a six-week period.

There’s a cost to this practice of staying laser-focused on a few dramatic or sensationalistic stories, and that cost is a lack of coverage of other, less sexy topics such as income inequality

However, there’s no better example than the media’s perpetual lack of interest in climate change. Print media has done an acceptable job, and some hosts such as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes have returned to the topic periodically while noting that it is “a palpable ratings killer.” But for most of the media, there is only silence.

Across all major U.S. broadcast TV networks, climate change merited only 142 minutes of coverage. Cable news devoted 365 segments to coverage of the Notre Dame fire in just one week, whereas the potentially irreparably loss of the Amazon merited just 25 segmentsABC News spent more time covering the birth of royal baby Archie in one week than it did covering climate change during all of 2018

Notably, on the same day baby Archie was born, the United Nations released a major report showing how human activity is threatening up to a million species with extinction. One would imagine a million species being on the chopping block due to our activities would merit a panel discussion or two. One would be wrong.

The media’s failings are legion. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a significant chunk of the American public says that their faith in the media could be restored.

We see some politicians stepping up to face this challenge. Bernie Sanders wants to limit media consolidation, allow employees a first chance to purchase local newspapers before they’re sold off, work to increase diversity in newsrooms and strengthen media workers' unions. Others have more limited but still intriguing approaches. 

Presidential candidate and technology entrepreneur Andrew Yang has a plan to subsidize local news through the federal government. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Memo: Sanders-Warren battle could reshape Democratic primary Environmental activists interrupt Buttigieg in New Hampshire Pence to visit Iowa days before caucuses MORE (D-Mass.) wants to protect media outlets from risky investment firm buyouts. Even Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans Poll: Sanders holds 5-point lead over Buttigieg in New Hampshire MORE (D-Minn.) wants to help media companies negotiate with Facebook and Google

These reforms might intimidate risk-averse media companies. Giving more power to workers is never popular in corporate America. But I would argue that whatever risk these reforms entail, the status quo is riskier still.

What if the media doesn’t act? What if these reforms aren’t pursued? What if the media continues on as it has, chasing ad dollars, dwelling in its bubble and ignoring its responsibilities to the people? 

Faith in the media will continue to fall. Actual “fake news” will proliferate. Far more dangerous, though, is the possibility that Donald Trump or some Trump-like future president will not be content simply to declare the media the “enemy of the people,” or end the daily press briefing or make vague threats to “open up the libel laws.” 

Beyond that is truly scary territory.

John Iadarola is the host and producer of the daily political news show "The Damage Report" on The Young Turks.