On Oct. 23, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy and the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future gathered a panel of experts on media, politics and public relations for a discussion on the politics of the free press — with the goal of understanding why trust in the media is at an all-time low.
The event in Wallis Annenberg Hall was moderated by Christina Bellantoni, the new director of the USC Annenberg Media Center and a CCLP Faculty Fellow, who began the conversation by asking the panelists to consider whether the public distrust in the press stems from the way that people consume media. She brought up the fact that Americans on the political left and right get their news from wildly different sources, often creating a feedback loop where people only read news that supports their point of view.
Johnnie Moore, a public relations strategist and founder of The KAIROS Company, said this was partly because of the increased ability — through technology and social media — to filter what you read, watch and listen to.
“We have a deluge of information unlike anything we’ve ever experienced in history … coupled with this perfect storm: everyone self-selects what they’re willing to listen to,” Moore said. “It’s not that people aren’t listening to both sides, it’s that they’re often not even able to listen to both sides anymore.”
For Elisha Krauss, a conservative political commentator who has worked as a senior producer on “The Sean Hannity Show,” the main issue with media trust boiled down to the increasing overlap between journalism and political commentary. She brought up the example of both Fox News talk shows and Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC being conflated with objective reporting in the minds of the average viewer.
“People on both sides see those on the other side calling themselves news, and that’s equally frustrating,” Krauss said, pointing out that she doesn’t call herself a journalist — and thinks few reporters actually meet the high bar for unbiased reporting.
CCLP Senior Fellow Sylvester Monroe agreed, saying that he considered himself a reporter rather than a journalist when he started working for Newsweek in 1973 — meaning that he had “an obligation to be fair, balanced and accurate.” Since then, writing for TIME, The San Jose Mercury News, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Ebony, he has noticed a shift in this objective among reporters, who he said now have to worry about the business side of journalism as well as the reporting side.
“Over the years the line between news and opinion has blurred, and it’s becoming blurrier every day,” Monroe said. “Part of that is because the news business itself is changing … I never worried about what impact my story was going to have on the business. You have to worry today — and that makes decisions about what you report, how you report it quite different.”
Sasha Issenberg, a journalist who has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and The Boston Globe, said much of the criticism — particularly from conservatives led by Donald Trump, who has called the press “the enemy of the people” — that journalists are biased stems from a desire to make them feel self-conscious about their reporting, and respond by overcompensating to give an opposite political viewpoint more attention than it’s due.
“A lot of media criticism isn’t made in good faith, isn’t made intellectually honestly, isn’t made by people who are actually concerned about the practice of good journalism,” Issenberg said.
Monroe, however, said the distrust in the media was a real problem, especially when compared with the respect and trust placed in journalists such as Walter Cronkite decades ago.
“I think we should be concerned about the fact that we are less respected and less trusted as journalists today than we once were,” Monroe said.
The conversation was underscored by the real concerns over what happens when people with anti-media views decide to act on their anger. In June, a shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis left multiple journalists dead, while two days after the panel was convened, CNN received a bomb in the mail at its office in New York, one of many sent that day in a coordinated attack mainly against Democratic politicians.
While Krauss said she thinks the onus lies on the individuals that choose to commit crimes against journalists, Issenberg attributed blame at least in part to anti-media rhetoric on the part of politicians like Trump.
“Trump has crossed a line in our political discourse that I think is damaging,” Issenberg said. “His goal is to de-legitimize the entirety of journalism such that nobody associated with it has credibility.”