Attacks on the press will get worse

“Such a partisan split indicates something foundational going on, like the plates of a fault line that had been producing tremors for years suddenly and violently pulling apart.”

An indelible image — perhaps the indelible image — of the press from the 2016 presidential election was watching news reporters penned in by steel barricades at Trump rallies being heckled and berated by the soon-to-be-president and thousands of followers. Theatrical, to be sure, but the threat was palpable. NBC News reporter Katy Tur had to be escorted to safety by the Secret Service. It was ugly.

The vitriol and division spewed during the 2016 campaign spilled over into 2017. As the elections abated, politics-as-usual meant attacks-on-the-press-as-usual, with President Trump reneging on a pledge made on 60 Minutes that he would restrain himself on Twitter. Far from it, Trump continues to consistently attack the press. Of course, Trump didn’t originate attacks on the news for slanted stories. The “liberal media bias” trope has existed for generations now and has been ramped up by the cacophony of conservative cable programs and talk radio. Trump just made it work for him, and work it did.

Attacks on the press as biased continue to resonate. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in May 2017 found that while 89 percent of Democrats agreed that the press “keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done,” only 42 percent of Republicans felt the same way — a huge gap consider that no real gap existed in 2015. Such a partisan split indicates something foundational going on, like the plates of a fault line that had been producing tremors for years suddenly and violently pulling apart.

So, where does that leave us in 2018? Unfortunately, the conditions for 2018 are favorable for increased partisan divides in how we trust the news media. The ongoing investigation by Robert Mueller into the president augurs difficult days ahead; the president will continue to push an agenda that will draw contentious responses; and, above all, the midterm congressional elections will be undoubtedly hotly contested, with nastiness abounding. All of these are major news stories and all depend on journalists to mediate back to us factual accounts of the many developments to come. Much of this will be news that not everyone will want to hear. It’s going to be ugly.

2018 will be the year when we have to seriously confront what it means for the press to be considered as an opposition party by a large segment of the populace. The often-sung tune of liberal media bias has calcified into a full-fledged belief system. A ready supply of conservative media outlets, coupled with the ample opportunities for confirmation bias offered by digital media, means those who dismiss the press will continue to do so, making journalism’s ability to provide a common stock of knowledge even more perilous.

What this will look like is more fighting at the level of the reliability of — if not the existence of — facts. The news story becomes the fight, not the substance of the news story. Journalists will continue to tout their expertise and the meticulousness of their newsgathering practices, and those who make mistakes will be punished, as ABC News’s Brian Ross recently discovered. But this will not be enough to counter deep divisions. A will to disbelieve the press will continue to persist in ways that cannot be avoided.

Given this rhetoric, violence against the press in the United States has remained stunningly low, save for deranged attacks. But the environment seems primed for physical encounters to escalate. If the press is the enemy, violence is what you do to your enemy.

The press should never be beyond reproach. The public accountability of the news media is a hallmark of democratic governance, and the press has its record of failings. But in 2018, it will become plain to see, more plain than even now, that journalists are being categorically dismissed as the opposition. Adaptations will follow, most likely with continued fragmentation of the news ecosystem into partisan clusters — leaving us to learn to function in a society that cannot agree on what is true or not.

Matt Carlson is an associate professor at Saint Louis University.

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