Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with additional information and links to external sources.
American institutions essential to our democratic liberty face dire straits, a crisis of confidence pitting them against a belligerent, power-hungry demagogue.
And they are losing that battle — badly.
As President Donald Trump’s approval rating slowly diminishes, the trustworthiness of the news media remains lower, still.
In April, Morning Consult released a poll showing more Americans trust the current occupant of the White House than the national news media. It wasn’t even close: 37 percent trust the president’s word, while only 29 percent routinely believe the political media.
The result is not an anomaly. Gallup found a similar level of journalistic trust before Election Day. An Emerson College poll, released in February, found Trump to be more trusted than the media by a slim margin.
A few polls show journalists squeaking out ahead, but this is not as comforting as it might seem. PolitiFact, a celebrated fact-checking organization, currently shows only 17 percent of Trump’s statements rated as “true” or “mostly true.” With such factual flippancy, news outlets should be crushing this man in confidence contests, and yet, more often than not, they are losing to him.
This problem is a disease capable of infecting democratic functionality at its very core.
Even renowned outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post do not seem sufficient to boost the credibility of our fact-finding intelligentsia. The multiple Pulitzer-wielding Times and Post — the latter of which unearthed pivotal details about the Nixon-era Watergate scandal, toppling a sitting president — are facing further financial pressures, as well, hindering their ability to play at the top of their game.
Print media is floundering as readers eschew the physical in favor of the digital, which is difficult to monetize and often free to consume. Since the election, subscriptions have risen, but this is not enough to abate the inevitable: the vanguards of the free press are dying. Investigative journalism, much more at home on the page than on the screen, is being throttled.
Americans have always been fanciful at heart; we love our creation myths. This tendency, and its information-age exacerbation, was described in glorious detail by Kurt Andersen in an article for The Atlantic‘s September issue, appropriately titled “How America Lost its Mind.” (Additionally, Andersen appeared on the Radio Atlantic podcast to discuss the project, as well as an upcoming book.) In it, Andersen portrays the county’s current mood as one that cares little for truth. We are “untethered from reality,” he says. It’s true.
The U.S. has birthed numerous idealist strains, for good and bad. Founded upon liberty, we grant asylum to numerous denizens of varying philosophies and creeds, whether they be religious sects, alternative medical practitioners or industry-shattering entrepreneurial behemoths. Even Hollywood itself, the cultural capital of factory-produced dream worlds, is evidence of our national lust for escapism. Our love of legends has fostered our current economic, cultural and militaristic strength, but has also come with a cost: bullheadedness.
In order to thrive, a modern nation must repeatedly renew its core tenants. Society is in a continual, and ever-accelerating, state of change; the law must be willing to accommodate that which did not previously exist. With our inherent fecklessness, we seem unable to accomplish this task. Further, we are often unwilling to try.
Grander introspection is imperative for healthy growth. American Exceptionalism was an excellent antidote to Cold War communist domineering, but it is not nearly as useful an attitude in today’s foreign morass. We operate on a Constitution over 200 years old, one that hasn’t seen amendment in decades. We are ill-equipped to reckon with our own failings, spelling doom for the free world’s pre-eminent military power.
Last November, we were swindled by Trump’s populism. He lied and cheated his way to the highest office, even while Russian powers, nary a friend to Western liberal democracy, worked to ensure his success. Now our NATO alliance seems less certain, our long-standing military partners less reliable, as the international community skates ever closer to the first world war of the millennium.
The possible triggers are aplenty.
North Korea is emboldened by our president’s blazing rhetoric, which plays right into its own domestic propaganda of fire and fury; we will have to make tough choices on how to confront the rising tensions and forestall nuclear conflict. The Russian government routinely meddles in foreign elections, much as they have already done with ours. They will continue to do so, bolstering anti-globalist campaigns at the expense of international stability, with our own commander in chief showing little concern. With the advent of Brexit, the European Union, a composite of many of our closest partners, seems less secure, as does our relationship with China, whom Trump often uses as a scapegoat for America’s economic ills.
Some yearn for the next presidential election, a time when we can finally correct our most grievous mistake, but they know not for what they wish. If the news media isn’t trusted, there will be no arbiter of fact and fiction as reference for The People to base their next great decision. Without correct information, carefully vetted by trained experts, Fake News will drown out the truth — again. What happens next is anyone’s guess.
If you think Trump is the worst we can do, you don’t know America.