The President’s approval ratings are low, perhaps historically low, or at least they are if you look at the average of all the respectable polls and don’t cherry-pick the one that is an outlier, as the President will do. The approval rate for Congress is even lower. This skepticism is not limited to the government, but also affects another important institution. Distrust of the media is rampant.
Poll results depend on how a question is framed. Asked generally about Congress, only a small number of respondents approve, but people reply much more favorably when asked about their specific representatives and senators. Something like this may also be true for polls about “the media.” That broad category may get more negatives than questions about the media’s specific subgroups.
Those who regularly watch an evening network news show probably think it does an acceptable job. The same may be true for the Sunday morning news shows or “60 Minutes.” A question that asked about the trustworthiness of cable news networks as a group would not be very useful; the “Fox News” devotee is not likely to think any other cable news source is reliable. Similarly, a broad question about newspapers may elicit much different responses from questions about a local newspaper or about national newspapers, such as The Washington Post or The New York Times. And, of course, a general question about internet news sites seems meaningless as would broad question about social media, YouTube channels, and chain emails.
A question about “mainstream media” also doesn’t make much sense because the meaning of “mainstream” is never clear except it seems to exclude Fox News. I am surprised by that because Fox News regularly touts how much it is watched and often stresses that Fox is watched more than any other cable news networks. Aren’t you, by definition, “mainstream” if you are viewed by so many people? (I recently learned that Fox’s slogan of “fair and balanced” refers to its content. I had assumed that when it said “fair,” it was referring to the hair and skin tones of so many of the women who regularly appear on it. And by “balanced,” I thought it meant something like a teeter totter that always swung down on anything to do with Obama and now is permanently up with Trump.)
The media is not a monolith. If I had not known it before, I certainly learned it in the days when representatives of the media asked me for comments on criminal trials, forensic science, or the jury system. I soon realized that local television or radio was merely looking for a sound bite. The reporter did not really care about the content of what I said, only that it was short and pithy. The reporter’s major goal seemed to be to get something on the air; actually informing the public was a much lesser concern. (A well-known local reporter called me late in the afternoon to ask if I would comment on a trial that had just concluded. As I was about to reply, I could hear her talk to what I assumed was her boss in the newsroom. She was asking to be allowed to send a crew to my office, and he was saying there was not time to do that before the evening news. She insisted she could make it and then said, “He always gives me great quotes.” I had talked with her but one other time.)
A few times I was interviewed at home. Most often this was by telephone for a radio. If it was for a radio network, the reporter often was not looking for a sound bite, but for extended comments, and I felt more comfortable when I thought that I might have the chance to educate listeners about the topic. That was true for a BBC interview on the use of DNA in criminal cases. This particular interview, however, had an unusual twist. I had just finished exercising and was sweaty when the home phone rang. It was a producer from a BBC show who asked if they could interview me live. I said ok, and the producer said that they would call back in a half hour–more than long enough to get the shower I needed. As I stepped out of the spray ten minutes later, the phone rang. I gave the live interview wet and naked—the only time I assure you. (Try not to visualize this—you might not sleep for weeks.) (To be continued.)