No matter whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins the presidency on Tuesday, the biggest loser in this bizarre election cycle will be the American media.
Call it mainstream, traditional, legacy or drive-by, the media — radio, television and print — have lost much of the trust the American public once had in them.
This is not something new; the general public’s trust in the media has been eroding for some time and a September Gallup Poll indicated that such trust is at an all-time low.
The poll, which has been taken every year since 1972 to gauge whether mass media reports “the news fully, accurately and fairly,” showed that less than one-third (32 percent) of Americans “have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.”
That’s an 8 percent drop from 2015 and a 40 percent drop from 1976, the latter when trust in the media was at its highest following media-driven revelations of the Nixon administration and Watergate scandals.
When it comes to politics, the perception many Americans have of the media now is that they are totally in the tank for one candidate or the other and are out there politicking, not reporting. This cuts across party lines and is not just a Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative issue.
Fox News and conservative radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are seen by liberals as favoring Donald Trump. And if you listen to talk radio, that’s hard to dispute.
The major broadcast networks, most cable networks, The Washington Post and The New York Times are seen by conservatives as favoring Hillary Clinton. And, if you listen to them or read them, that’s hard to dispute. The Post and the Times in particular have gone after Trump with a vengeance that harkens back to the yellow journalism of the early 20th century.
And it’s not just those East Coast, upper-crust publications whose editors and reporters think they have all the answers for everyone. I’ve even had some former colleagues from Georgia’s largest newspaper suggest that the media should drop all pretenses of objectivity and fairness and go after Trump because of what they believe to be an imminent threat to the republic should he be elected.
But that’s not the media’s role in our constitutional republic. Doing that, in essence, would make the media a wing of one party, and if that party’s candidate wins, the media would be an arm of the government.
If, on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, we actually have to start referring to Trump as “Mr. President,” I am afraid liberal heads will start exploding every time they hear it, sort of like the Martians in the movie “Mars Attacks” whenever they heard Slim Whitman singing “Indian Love Call.”
Whether the media are as bad or as biased as either side makes them out to be is largely a matter of individual perception. But the problem is that in this incredibly divisive campaign, perception has become reality for many voters.
The media, largely through their own fault, have done little to alter that perception. If anything, they have become active participants in further alienating their readers, viewers and listeners by playing to the lowest common denominator and focusing on the sensational rather than the substantive.
Throughout the campaign, each side has taken the slightest hint of impropriety by the media and made it out to be far worse than it actually is in an effort to demonstrate media bias.
CNBC reporter John Harwood, a former colleague of mine at The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and a moderator of one of this year’s debates, was harshly criticized for appearing to offer campaign advice to Clinton aides in an exchange of emails with campaign chief John Podesta.
It is not unusual for reporters to maintain close ties to sources in both campaigns, but by appearing to offer advice to one candidate while denigrating the other in email exchanges crosses the line into unethical behavior and only serves to stoke outrage on the other side.
There also have been charges of journalistic malpractice over several reports of journalists reading stories to Clinton campaign operatives before they are printed. Conservatives have sought to use this as proof that the media in general and The New York Times in particular are out to get Trump.
This, however, is not uncommon in journalism when there is a major story about to be printed or broadcast. Journalistic ethics require that the other side be given an opportunity to respond to the story; it’s not to give the other side the opportunity to kill the story or make changes to it, as has been implied.
Each side also has its own watchdog group that sniffs out what it believes to be media bias.
The Media Research Center, a conservative group, reported in October that in the 12 weeks following the party conventions, broadcast network news outlets devoted more than twice the number of minutes to Trump’s personal controversies than to Clinton’s personal controversies (440-185).
On the liberal side of the fence is Media Matters for America, which sees a right-wing conspiracy in virtually everything in the media that portrays Clinton in a negative light. Some recent headlines on the organizations web site: “Fox’s Special Report Segment On ‘Race Relations’ Was Just An Attack On Hillary Clinton;” and “Sean Hannity Pushed A Fake Story That Would’ve Been Disproven By A Quick Twitter Search.”
Perhaps more troubling is the recent revelation that Donna Brazile, who was employed by CNN as a consultant at the same time she was serving as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee and as an adviser to Clinton, fed debate questions to Clinton in advance of one of the debates.
The fact that Brazile was getting paid by CNN while advising Clinton is egregious error No. 1 for the network; she never should have been allowed to do that. Egregious error No. 2 was that she somehow got access to debate questions and passed them on to Clinton.
CNN got rid of Brazile last week (she says she resigned) once that information was revealed in one of the Wikileaks email dumps. But the fact that she was even in such a delicate position only serves to enrage conservatives and deepen their belief that CNN leans far to the left and is firmly in Hillary’s camp.
Of course, CNN also employed Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, as a consultant and commentator while he still was being paid by the campaign. That doesn’t even things out; it makes CNN’s ethics policy doubly troubling.
The big question about big media is whether in general they lean to the left or are they able to put aside their political biases and report fairly and objectively. Numerous studies over the years have shown that by and large members of the media, especially those in the New York-Washington power corridor, tend to vote Democratic.
Last month the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington-based journalism organization, reported that through August, 430 journalists had contributed $382,000 to the Clinton campaign, while just 50 have contributed about $14,000 to Trump.
And from my own 40 years of experience at newspapers large and small in Florida and Georgia, there is no question that most reporters see themselves as social progressives and favor liberals and Democrats when it comes to politics. While that liberalism is more obvious and open in larger newspapers, smaller, regional papers tend to be a better reflection of the views of people they serve.
What this election cycle has shown about the media is that by trying to titillate the voting public rather than enlighten it, they have continued to deepen the hole of distrust in which they already found themselves and from which they may never be able to extricate themselves.
Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia. His commentaries appear monthly.