- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2019

President Trump has broken the press in America.

Or at least he has left it bruised and battered, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, which crunched reams of data collected from 50 surveys and found that while Democrats continue to have faith in American media, Mr. Trump’s followers are quite done with it all.

The findings were released just days after the press received its latest black eye in the inspector general’s report looking at the FBI’s behavior during its investigation into Mr. Trump. The inspector general thoroughly punctured journalists who insisted that the Christopher Steele dossier had little to do with the FBI’s ability to obtain a secret warrant to spy on one of the candidate’s advisers.

Fueled by those sorts of media missteps, Mr. Trump’s followers are in full revolt against the press.

According to Pew, the stronger the support for the president, the harsher the attitude toward the Fourth Estate.

And the more knowledge about politics, the deeper the divide. A staggering 91% of politically woke Democrats say journalists are acting in the best interests of the public. Only 16% of politically astute Republicans say the same thing, Pew found.

“Republicans who strongly approve of the job Trump is doing are far more pessimistic in their evaluations of the news media than other Republicans. And Democrats who are most disapproving of Trump’s job performance are often more supportive of the news media than Democrats who disapprove less strongly,” the researchers concluded.

The one area of agreement: Neither side thinks the press deals fairly with all perspectives of the news.

“The last four years show that the press is fundamentally broken,” said Curtis Houck, managing editor at NewsBusters.

His organization tracked cable news airtime last week and found that CNN aired 99% of House Democrats’ impeachment hearing but only a third of Senate Republicans’ hearing on the inspector general’s report that found the FBI abused the secret warrant process to target Mr. Trump.

Mr. Houck said CNN did spend additional time on the Republican hearing, but that was with its own reporters and pundits, who focused on the inspector general’s finding that the FBI followed its rules in starting the Trump investigation while dismissing the finding that the bureau broke its rules to obtain the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant.

Mr. Houck said that kind of selective coverage sticks with Americans already jaded by the press hype of the Steele dossier, the largely discredited anti-Trump research conducted at the behest of the Clinton campaign that the inspector general now says was the critical tipping point in obtaining the FISA warrant.

“The Steele dossier is wrong, then you have the coverage of the report coming out, and CNN and the like aren’t covering it to the degree they should. The result is people don’t trust the press and they don’t think their ethics are on the up-and-up,” Mr. Houck said.

That is particularly true for Republican viewers, according to Pew, which found that just 20% think journalists have high ethical standards and only 30% believe the press acts in the best interests of the public. Self-identified Democrats, meanwhile, were far more forgiving, with 76% saying the press acts for the public and 64% believing in high ethical standards.

Even Democrats, though, are skeptical of fairness in the press. Just 37% said news organizations deal fairly with all sides. Among Republicans, only 12% thought so.

The more Republicans support Mr. Trump, the less likely they are to see journalists as fair or credible.

Christina Bellantoni, who as a reporter covered Washington for years including for The Washington Times and who is now director of the Annenberg Media Center at the University of Southern California, said the tension between the press and the president has exposed fault lines.

“I don’t think Trump is to blame for the state of how people feel about the media. He exemplifies what the media gets wrong, and people are craving a more informed conversation,” she said.

She said reporters compound the situation by taking to platforms such as Twitter, where they supplement their reporting with unfiltered thoughts and snark — including about the president.

“The press has to earn back the trust, and until it does I think those Pew numbers will go down. People see there’s a sense one side is rooting for another,” she said.

The dossier by Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence officer, has been a major fault line.

Breathlessly reported in the weeks before the 2017 presidential inauguration, lurid stories of Mr. Trump cavorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room have now been deemed ridiculous at best and Russian disinformation at worst.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the most senior Republican, demanded an investigation two years ago into Mr. Steele and the FBI’s use of his information. He was fiercely mocked for it.

After the inspector general announced findings that the FBI misused the Steele dossier, his office took a victory lap, taking to Twitter to chide Democratic politicians and journalists who had attacked him and either defended the Steele dossier or downplayed its importance in winning the FISA warrant.

Other Twitter accounts joined the push for accountability. One account by the name Techno Fog blasted reporters from NBC, CNN, Reuters, Politico and The Washington Post, where reporter Shane Harris insisted last year that “the dossier was not used as the basis for a FISA warrant on Carter Page.”

In fact, the inspector general found that the dossier was the critical tipping point that persuaded the FBI, which previously blocked a FISA application, to move ahead with one.

On Twitter last week, Mr. Harris tried to defend himself: “The IG report confirms that the Steele memos did not trigger the investigation and were not the basis of the application for FISA surveillance on Page. A significant (and problematic) component of that application, yes. But the sole basis? No. This was and remains my point,” he said.

Left-wing media watchdog Media Matters, meanwhile, used its website to blast Fox News for on-air claims that suggested the Steele dossier was the basis for the entire FBI investigation into Mr. Trump.

In fact, the inspector general said, that investigation was opened before the dossier was in the bureau’s hands and was based on allegations against a different Trump staffer than the one for whom the FBI obtained the FISA warrant.

Media Matters did not respond to a request for comment from The Times.

Mr. Houck, at the conservative NewsBusters, said the press is failing to hold itself accountable and that Pew’s findings about distrust are unlikely to improve unless something changes.

“The chances of inwardness on the media’s part is slim to none,” he said. “The Steele dossier fiasco and the spin offered about the findings of the [inspector general’s] report just goes to show the press isn’t serious about being more accountable.”

But Ms. Bellantoni is optimistic about improvement. She said she already sees signs in the next generation of journalists and news consumers, whom she is teaching at USC.

“It does give me a lot of hope,” she said.

She said they exposed students to unfiltered coverage of the impeachment hearings without the commentary of news channels and then shared historical context in their own discussions. The point, she said, was to give them direct access to the news.

Her journalism students are assigned to write a profile of someone with whom they disagree politically. The goal, she said, is to expose them to the importance of being able to articulate a perspective beyond their own.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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