American Exceptionalism Gone Wonky. Again.
A fairly recently released Pew Research Center survey measures how the public of some thirty-eight countries of various constitutional types perceive the fairness and accuracy of their respective nations’ news media in their political coverage. The survey reveals that the American public ranks in the lower-middle of the international pack in its evaluation of the media’s fairness and accuracy. This suggests that American cynicism of the news media, while pronounced and a legitimate point of concern, is far from a global extreme.
What is worth noting, however, is two ways in which the United States stands apart from most other countries. One such point of difference concerns who is satisfied with news coverage in each country. To quote, “In most countries, people who support the political party currently in power are more satisfied with the performance of their news media than those who do not support the governing party.” In most countries. Of the thirty-eight countries polled, the public in thirty-five countries followed this pattern. The United States, in contrast, was one of just three nations (along with Israel and Australia) in which supporters of the political party in power are less satisfied with the quality of media coverage. No nation’s supporters of the party in power are more dissatisfied with their nation’s political media coverage than are American Republicans.
A second even more striking point of difference involves partisanship’s role in shaping perception of the news. Quite remarkably, the partisan gap for evaluating the quality of news is greater in the United States than in any other country. And by a long shot.
In light of the survey results it seems reasonable to surmise that in most countries the public’s evaluation of the media turns on general public satisfaction with political governance. Surely such contentment is also linked in complicated but significant ways with general sense of overall well-being and trust in public institutions. More trust in government translates, at least roughly, into more trust of the media. This does not entail a logically necessary connection, but it’s quite possible it entails a powerful psychological connection.
In the United States, in contrast, the judgment citizens hold of the media, along increasingly with everything else, turns on one’s identification with a political tribe. Full stop. This dynamic bodes ill for the United States. Widely held perceptions of a politicized media viewed to be at odds with the government–whether such perceptions are grounded in reality or not—virtually begs opportunistic elected officials to curry public favor by excoriating the press. This may lead to an embattled media in reality. In the face of ongoing attacks on journalistic integrity or First Amendment freedoms, the media would feel the lure of increasingly powerful incentives to drop even the pretense of journalistic objectivity.
And on and on it could go, a cycle of deepening public cynicism and declining trust in all public institutions.