President Donald Trump’s deliberate campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the press has convinced a vast swath of the country that major news outlets are fabricating news stories about the president and his administration, according to a new poll.
The Politico/Morning Consult survey finds that 46 percent of voters say that the media make up stories about the president, while 37 percent say they do not. The results are strongly influenced by partisan affiliation, with more than three-quarters of Republican voters claiming that the press fabricates stories, compared to roughly one in five Democrats.
Other recent polling has shown that confidence in the press has risen somewhat since the 2016 presidential election, with respondents trusting the news media more than they do the president. But those results show a similar partisan skew, with Republican support for the press significantly lower than Democratic support.
There are plenty of legitimate arguments to make about the quality of mainstream press coverage, including that media can ignore important stories, leave out or de-emphasize important context, build narratives that don’t add up, and provide false equivalency. And sometimes journalists just get the story wrong.
But claiming that journalists deliberately falsify stories for partisan gain just isn’t credible. Reporters who fabricate stories are drummed out of the business and become cautionary tales among their peers.
In fact, the idea is so ludicrous that it’s hard to imagine even seeing a poll question like this one go into the field before the last few years. But Trump has mainstreamed the idea, regularly claiming to be the victim of a vast conspiracy of dishonest reporters who are deliberately lying about his administration.
Trump’s frequent attacks on the press are part of a cynical administration strategy to delegitimize alternate sources of information in order to bolster the president’s standing, and they coincide with an effort by the president’s media supporters to suggest that critical press outlets can’t be trusted. The strategy often kicks into gear when the press produces accountability journalism that is particularly damning for the administration -- for instance, recent Trump attacks on the press have come as reporting led to the resignation of a cabinet secretary and the withdrawal of another top nominee.
As this new poll shows, the effort to undermine the press and convince voters that journalists make up stories is bearing fruit, among Republican party stalwarts in particular.
The effort is likely helped along by a conservative media apparatus that supports the president’s attacks on the mainstream press and Republican Party leaders who have been largely unwilling to stand up to the president. The right wing has targeted the purportedly liberal press for decades, both as a way to bolster its political candidates and as a strategy to increase the audience of partisan conservative outlets.
The Politico/Morning Consult poll’s silver lining is that the nation is not yet on board with the president’s threats to use the power of the federal government to punish news outlets that produce reporting that displeases him. Last week, Trump suggested pulling the broadcast licenses of networks he claims publish “Fake News,” a claim that’s made no less troubling by its apparent infeasibility. As of yet, only 28 percent believe that the federal government should be able to pull the licenses of outlets it claims are making up stories about the president and his administration.
That said, the poll also shows a significant partisan skew -- nearly half of Republican respondents want the government to have that power. And Trump has been floating this argument for only a week. If he continues to not only attack the press, but also suggest sanctions against critical news outlets -- without serious criticism from Republican leaders or conservative media -- you can expect those numbers to rise.
The president needs to enforce a pro-Trump media bubble around his supporters to keep them from beginning to question his leadership. And with their support, he may be able to spread that bubble to the rest of the country.
Charts by Sarah Wasko.