Distrust of the media is nothing new. The percentage of Americans who say they have faith in news organizations has been falling for at least a generation. But the widening partisan nature of that distrust has left Republicans increasingly uninformed. And that, in turn, helps explain why the Trumpist right espouses conspiracy theories on topics ranging from COVID-19 to QAnon.
Over the weekend, the Pew Research Center published a roundup of “20 striking findings from 2020.” Checking in at No. 13 was a survey from earlier this year showing that Republicans lack faith in the media to a far greater extent than Democrats.
There are many layers to the survey, but here’s a particularly telling data point: 60% of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents cited a “desire to mislead” as one of the principal reasons that news outlets make mistakes, compared to just 32% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Overall, 78% of Democrats and Democratic leaners who strongly disapprove of President Donald Trump “expect that the news they get will largely be accurate” compared to just 39% of strong Trump supporters on the Republican side.
Such findings have to be seen in the context of what media sources people rely on for their news and information. The evidence shows that Trump supporters have isolated themselves from mainstream discourse.
As far back as 2014, Pew found that “consistent conservatives” were “tightly clustered around a single news source,” with “47% citing Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.” Other studies, such as a 2017 MIT-Harvard Law School effort, showed that liberals consumed a far more varied media diet than did conservatives. The power and influence of Fox News has only grown since then, notwithstanding the recent success of Newsmax and OANN, which are more willing to indulge Trump’s lies about the election.
Mainstream outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR are hardly perfect, of course. The Times and the Post, in particular, often cater more than they should to the liberal sensibilities of their subscribers. But, however flawed they may be, they are guided by journalistic principles such as truth-seeking and verification, whereas their counterparts on the right, such as Fox’s prime-time hosts, the Gateway Pundit and Rush Limbaugh, engage in little other than right-wing propaganda.
The effect of this asymmetric polarization in media consumption is clear enough in politics, as we are currently witnessing an unprecedented assault on the outcome of a presidential election that wasn’t even close. But it manifests itself in other ways as well.
Take, for instance, No. 19 on Pew’s list — a survey showing that 41% of Republicans and Republican leaners who’ve heard of the QAnon conspiracy theory believe that it’s either good or very good for the country, compared to just 7% on the Democratic side.
QAnon, in case you haven’t heard, is based on the belief that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats are involved in an international pedophile ring and that Trump is secretly working to defeat them. Pew notes that, incredibly, more than a dozen candidates for the House and Senate last fall, all Republicans, were QAnon supporters, or at least Q-curious. Two of them actually won election to the House.
Or consider Pew’s No. 1 finding, which is as unsurprising as it is enraging: “Since the very beginning of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, Democrats have been far more likely than Republicans to see COVID-19 as a ‘major threat’ to public health.” How wide is the split? According to a November survey, 84% of Democrats and Democratic leaners see it was major threat but just 43% on the Republican side.
“The partisan gap on this measure,” Pew said, “remains about as wide as at any point during the outbreak and stands in contrast to the large shares of both Republicans (83%) and Democrats (86%) who say the outbreak is a major threat to the U.S. economy.”
Those two findings explain a lot. With the exception of a few GOP officials like Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Republicans — starting with Trump himself — have led the charge against shutdowns and mask-wearing. Though Democrats and Republicans are roughly equal in their view that COVID-19 threatens the economy, Democrats see those public-health measures as necessary for getting the pandemic under control while Republicans see them as assaults on freedom.
Which is why many Trump supporters are willing to engage in behavior that puts both themselves and the rest of us at risk. Or as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News host Tucker Carlson last spring: “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for our children and our grandchildren.” No wonder we’ve now lost more than 300,000 American lives to COVID-19.
Pew’s No. 20 could be a bad omen for Mark Zuckerberg. A majority of Democrats and Republicans said they believe social-media companies are censoring political views — although that belief was more pronounced among Republicans.
Many of Pew’s other findings documented the misery we’re all experiencing during this terrible year. International travel is down. For the first time since the Great Depression, a majority of young adults are living with their parents. Four in 10 people surveyed said either they or someone in their household had been laid off or taken a pay cut. More than half know someone who has died or been hospitalized because of COVID.
This past weekend, violence broke out as Trump supporters rallied in support of their false belief that President-elect Joe Biden stole the election. In Michigan, electors needed a police escort to the state capitol so that they could cast their ballots for Biden. A group of House Republicans are threatening chaos next month. Trump shows no signs of backing down, raising the prospect of unrest for months to come.
We all sense that the hyperpolarization that has torn the country apart in recent years and that has accelerated under Trump has reached a tipping point. What the Pew list shows more than anything is that this split is a consequence of the Republican Party becoming increasingly radical, violent and undemocratic.
A lot of that can be traced back to our media habits. Most of us rely on journalism to stay informed. And a sizable minority has gotten sucked down a bottomless hole of falsehoods and conspiracy theories.
We’re all looking forward to 2021. We’ll get vaccinated. COVID-19 will slowly begin to recede. The Biden White House will restore some sense of normality.
In the long run, though, we remain in a very dark place.
GBH News contributor Dan Kennedy’s blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.