Commentary: Polls show Americans distrust the media. But talk to them, and it's a very different story.
The July email from Daniel Hastings, a Post reader who lives in Washington, was harsh: "You never have any intention of providing an unbiased or factual representation of the man or his policies," he wrote. "Ergo, fake news! No one outside your liberal bubble at the Post or the general DC area can take you seriously."
Hastings was responding to a column I had written about President Donald Trump. I'd argued that Trump was wrong to insist, despite credible evidence to the contrary, that much of the reporting done by national news organizations was just lies. Hastings disagreed - and he had some advice for me: "Take a visit to the heart of the country. Go to a diner or a flea market. Strike up some conversations. Come back and report without malice or deceit." He seemed sure that most people would back him up.
As the media columnist for The Washington Post, I had long ago become used to hostile mail and phone calls from some readers, mostly those supporting Trump, and to trolling on social media. While I have received a lot of appreciative feedback that practically demands to be printed and displayed on the fridge, I have also heard from someone who suggested that my breasts should be cut off with a butcher knife, and from someone who told me that he had a gun and people like me would soon be eliminated. I've often been called the "c-word," a slut and a bitch. Some writers even signed their names to these venomous notes. One reader, John Hanna, was perfectly civil, but told me by phone that he and his wife - both Washington-area physicians - had voted for Trump (whom he nevertheless called "a buffoon") because of the candidate's opposition to the "terribly biased" media, particularly the New York Times and The Washington Post.
I found all this disturbing - after all, I've spent more than 30 years in journalism, going back to when I was editor in chief of my high school newspaper, and I've always thought our profession's mission was necessary, even noble. Now, at least for a sizable segment of the country, it seemed the tide had turned. We journalists, according to the president, were "the enemy of the people." And public opinion polls suggested that many people concurred with him: One found that nearly half of American voters think the media make things up about the president.
With the rarest exceptions, legitimate journalists, though they certainly make mistakes, don't fabricate stories. They try hard to be fair and to get things right. So this wave of hostility was depressing. And I wondered how widespread it might be.
I didn't like Hastings's tone, but I liked his idea - and in fact, I'd already begun doing exactly what he suggested. I turned down invitations to speak in Istanbul, Moscow and even Paris in 2017, and instead visited Arizona, Alabama, Wisconsin, Indiana and small-town Pennsylvania. And for a deeper look, I spent six weeks this past summer working from someplace other than my perch in the newsroom in downtown Washington: I lived in Angola, a small town in western New York state, on the shores of Lake Erie. While there, I wrote my usual media columns, but I decided to do something else, too: talk to people about their media habits and trust.
I wasn't just parachuting in for a couple of days and then leaving. And because I had grown up nearby, my roots in the area ran deep. I'd been a reporter for and the top editor of the local newspaper, the Buffalo News. I knew firsthand about the shuttered steel mills of my home town, the small city of Lackawanna. I knew that 2 in 5 children in the city of Buffalo live in poverty. And I knew that while the cities of western New York - Buffalo and Niagara Falls - had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the outskirts are as red as an old-school Starbucks holiday cup. Like many counties nationwide, Niagara County had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but had flipped to Trump in 2016. (While the cities have a substantial minority population, the suburbs and rural areas are predominantly white.)
Just as Hastings suggested, I would go to diners, flea markets and pizza joints. I'd pull up a bar stool at the irresistibly named Paulette's Blue Collar Inn. I would shop at Dick's Sporting Goods, with its large gun department. I'd go to Mass at Most Precious Blood Church. And I would listen.
By the end of my journey, I had interviewed 35 people and chatted with dozens of others. I found very little of what I feared most. And I discovered that some stereotypes about the way heartland Americans view the media don't quite hold up.
I came upon Christine Radwan scanning the popular-fiction shelves in the Angola public library on the town's modest Main Street. Her red T-shirt, with its American flag design and the words "God Bless America," made me think that she might be a Trump voter - and my hunch turned out to be right. But Radwan's political preferences are complicated. She was once a Democrat, but she thought the party had lost its way years ago. She and her husband are now Conservative Party committeemen in the town of Evans. Her husband is a retired Buffalo police officer; she's a former Sears saleswoman.
Radwan seemed startled when I introduced myself as a Washington Post writer - I felt like I had "coastal-elite media" emblazoned on my forehead - but she was willing to talk. "We watched CNN for a long time and then Fox News," she began, "but after a while it wasn't news anymore. It was people's ideas and a lot of arguing." Her husband continued to watch Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, but Radwan told me that she would leave the room: "I don't need the ranting." Nowadays, she and her husband start each day with coffee and the local newspaper. In the evening, "we watch Lester Holt" on NBC.
I asked her if she trusted those news sources. "For the most part, yes," she said. "I think what we're getting is true."
This sounded encouraging. I asked her whether she thought the Russian-collusion story line was worthwhile, and she took a long moment before answering. "Yes, it's important," she said at last, "but not as important as our economy and what's happened to our middle class." She's worried about her children's and her grandchildren's futures in an economy that seems stacked against them.
What one change would help her trust the news media more? She was direct: "I want them to drop the attitude and the preconceived ideas." I thought of all the snark I'd seen from reporters on Twitter, and the news stories that verge on opinion. She had made a reasonable point - one that I would hear over and over.
The next day, Ralph McNall's Chevrolet Volt was charging in his driveway when I arrived (I had made an appointment to stop by after meeting him as a neighbor), and his Bernie Sanders sticker was still displayed on the bumper. McNall, a retired electrical engineer, lives in suburban Buffalo in the summer and at The Villages in central Florida in the winter. A self-described progressive, he listens to NPR off-and-on all day and watches "PBS NewsHour" at night. On Sundays, he reads the Buffalo News and watches "60 Minutes" on CBS. "I avoid Fox," he said. He sees articles from The Washington Post or the New York Times or HuffPost on Facebook, often shared by a politically aware Maryknoll priest who's a friend. But he's distrustful because of all the claims and counterclaims in the news, and because he's aware that some of what's on social media has been fabricated. "Sometimes I'll do a search - try to find out is this real or is this fake?" he said.
National media coverage of Bernie Sanders during the campaign was "grossly lacking," he complained. The news media, he said, "a lot of times is only telling half the truth," which is why he approaches even his go-to NPR with skepticism. "I take it all with a grain of salt," he said. "You're not always getting the whole story." He blames that on superficiality - he says there's not enough effort to dig into the issues and get all sides. I didn't argue, though I was feeling defensive. There certainly was some truth in what he said: Journalism sometimes suffers from a hit-and-run approach to reporting, especially on matters of substance.
McNall also faults news consumers - too many don't know much about how government works or about current events. He'd like to see citizens take a 10-point test before they're allowed to vote, "just to establish basic civics and news knowledge." At the least, he would like to see civics education return and news literacy improve vastly. I couldn't argue with that, but I left the conversation feeling discouraged. If McNall, a heavy consumer of serious news, was so mistrustful, that was a bad sign.
On another day, I made the 40-minute drive into Buffalo, passing the acres of industrial park along the Lake Erie shoreline that were once dominated by the Bethlehem Steel plant, which in its heyday employed more than 20,000 residents. At Undergrounds, a coffee shop in a newly hip section of the city, Zack Sadlouskos, a young Trump voter who works in real estate, told me that he's fed up with the media. Relentless stories about internal politics at the White House strike him as trivial, not worthy of the breathless treatment they get.
"I wish the bickering would stop," he said, referring to commentary by pundits. He listens to Fox News Radio on SiriusXM, and he compares what he hears there with what's offered on CNN and other news outlets, like NBC News, which he watches some evenings: "There's a pretty stark contrast between what they report." So he weighs them against each other. "At this point, I'm pretty tired of it all," he explained, saying he wants reporting presented straight - just the facts, with less opinion attached. "It's called the news - it's not supposed to be about their agendas." Journalists, especially cable pundits, he said, "need to grow up."
Part of the problem, it seems, is defining what "media" means. Often, the most disparaging comments I heard were about the worst qualities of cable-TV news, with their pundit panels and need to fill time, around the clock, by pointlessly chewing over small developments. But I wasn't there to argue, I reminded myself. I was asking people to judge media as they saw it, not as I do.
Much worse was my conversation with Jason Carr of Green Bay, Wis., a middle-aged member of the Oneida Nation who was visiting his girlfriend in western New York. Wearing a "Born to Chill" T-shirt and sitting behind the wheel of his Ford F-150 pickup truck in a KeyBank parking lot, Carr told me that media reports strike him as nothing but "a puppet show" that is "filtered and censored" by big business. He buys into the conspiracy theories that the United States government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that the 2012 massacre of Connecticut schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School was staged. Carr didn't vote in the presidential election and said there's nothing the news media could do to earn his trust. "I don't believe anything they say," he said. "They get paid to be wrong." I left the conversation shaking my head, knowing that, as is clear from the huge following of sites like the conspiracy-promoting Infowars, he's far from alone in his beliefs.
But Carr was the exception, not the rule. And his complaints didn't worry me as much as something else I encountered again and again: indifference. This was the real surprise and the most discouraging takeaway of my inquiry. So many people were happy to complain vaguely about "the media," without really caring about the news, or following it with much interest. The concept of being a responsibly informed citizen? That was all too rare.
Take the nail technician in her 20s who told me that she follows current events only glancingly, mostly on Facebook. National news, she said, doesn't seem relevant to her life. Like so many others I interviewed - about half - she didn't vote in the presidential election. I left the salon with a great manicure and a heavy heart.
And so it was a relief to strike up a conversation with Mary Ellen Nytz, a corrections officer and self-professed news junkie who was out walking with her son. When I described the low level of media trust in public opinion polls, she looked puzzled. "Who are they polling?" she wondered. If not for journalism, "how else would we know what was going on? I really appreciate it." Amid the complaints and apathy, this was a moment of something like satisfaction. Or maybe hope.
On the whole, the people I talked to may not have liked the media, but - with exceptions - they seemed to find it at least somewhat credible, and their critiques were more nuanced than cries of "fake news." My experience seemed quite a bit better than what a 2017 Gallup poll said: Only 41 percent of Americans trust the news media.
How to explain this disconnect? And why had I heard so much intense resentment from some readers by email or phone when that hostility didn't surface face-to-face? Tom Rosenstiel provided some insight. An author of seminal journalism books and the director of the American Press Institute, Rosenstiel once worked for the Pew Research Center, which has done extensive polling on attitudes about the media.
For many, he said, there's "the media" (bad) and there's "my media" (fairly good). That's also the way many feel about Congress generally, compared with their local representative. "Most Americans like their own media pretty well," said Rosenstiel. When asked about whether they trust press reports, people are probably thinking about that first category. And who can say what "the media" means to these respondents - are they thinking of Fox News or the New York Times? Are they assessing the local TV station or their Facebook feed?
But what about the people who think I ought to be physically harmed or who call the mainstream media "fake news"? Rosenstiel explains one of the paradoxes: The highest levels of distrust come from the heaviest news consumers. Because they have strong views of their own, they get upset when they don't see those views reflected in the news they take in. When they see what they consider biased reporting, it angers and frustrates them - and that eats away at trust. Most people, though, are busy living their lives; they're not thinking about the media intensively, though they may feel, in Rosenstiel's words, "a general unease or frustration."
When I returned to Washington, the mostly mild irritation I'd heard in person gave way once again to polarized extremes. In November, I wrote a column criticizing Breitbart News and Fox's Sean Hannity for using their media platforms to increase the fear that women say they feel as they consider whether to complain about sexual harassment. Immediately, two emails arrived. "Thank you for your wonderful column," said one. "Keep speaking up for the right thing, which U always do. I'm sure you hear a lot from the haters. Well, don't listen to them. Readers like me really really appreciate you." And then the other one: "It sickens me that people like you post lies and deception to the public. This article has no right to be printed to the public. You are what is wrong with this country. Shame on you!" As usual, the contrast was enough to induce whiplash.
But now, I find that my internal reaction is different. The country isn't, I believe, rigidly divided into those who will always hate the media and those who deeply appreciate us. As a result, I think it's more important than ever that we journalists continue striving to win over those who are skeptical, conflicted or simply apathetic. We need to heed complaints about the blending of news and opinion, and to make it clear which is which. We need to focus more intently - and more engagingly - on subjects that matter most to ordinary people's lives, and to calm down about White House intrigue and Trump's every tweet. And we need to stamp out the snarky attitude that seems to brag, "I'm smarter than my audience." Perhaps most important, we need to be much more transparent - willing to explain our work, and own up to our inevitable mistakes.
Back at my desk in The Post's newsroom, I think sometimes about Jennifer Clark, a middle-aged woman with long gray hair whom I interviewed at the Erie County Fair. She works two jobs: one in food service and the other at a printing factory where she operates sewing and cutting machines. Still, she finds the time to read the Buffalo News (which publishes articles every day from The Post and the Times) and to watch TV news. She cares about staying informed. But she's never sure if she's getting the truth. On the Trump-Russia story, "I don't know if they're stirring the pot or if there's really something there," she said. Her requests stayed with me: "Report it as it is, without the twist. Report it without being biased. Tell it all."
The Jennifer Clarks of the country are the ones we need to reach: They have complicated feelings about the media, but they are not dogmatic in their criticism. And if we follow their advice - if we pursue fairness, depth, accuracy - we may not save a democracy that so many feel is under siege, and we will still probably get our share of obscene phone calls and emails, but we'll have done a job that's worth doing. One worth spending a lifetime on, if we get that lucky.
Author Information: Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.