American Exceptionalism Gone Wonky. Again.

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. 

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.

Thus far.

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.

Michael Bailey
About Michael Bailey
Michael is Associate Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, GA. His academic publications address the American Founding, the American presidency, religion and politics, and governance in liberal democracies. He also writes on popular culture, and his articles on, among other topics, patriotism, Church and State, and Kurt Vonnegut, have been published in Prism and Touchstone. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas in Austin, where he also earned his BA. He’s married and has three children. He joined OTB in November 2016.


  1. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    In other words, Roger Ailes, Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh (3 of the 4 Horsemen) succeeded in reaching the goal they started working on in the 90’s.

    More and more, I’m glad I don’t have children.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    As I said few days ago, it’s time to ask if it’s possible to have both FOX News and democracy.

  3. teve tory says:

    @gVOR08: Last week kevin drum said:

    If you want to make a case for the slippery slope into fascism or whatever, this is your best bet. Real authoritarians—as opposed to wannabes like Trump—would recognize this playbook and nod approvingly. The first thing you have to do is get control of the security forces. That means smearing the leadership as corrupt and then purging them, to be replaced by loyalists.

    Of course, you can’t do this unless your own party goes along. And boy howdy, are Republicans going along.

    You need a core of devoted followers. Trump has that in evangelicals and racially aggrieved whites.

    You need the press to report everything at least neutrally even if they know your charges are obviously phony. That’s happening too.

    And you need a weak opposition. Trump has that because, let’s face it, the FBI has never been a liberal favorite. Most of the time we’re griping about their racial insensitivity or their treatment of suspects or their mass surveillance. It’s hard to turn on a dime and suddenly become their biggest boosters.

    Finally, you need to put on a show for the masses, and we’re sure getting that with the Nunes memo, aren’t we?

    Every condition you need for fascism exists currently in the US except two:

    1) a serious economic downturn

    2) a dude who really really wants to be a dictator and schemes to do it.

    We’ve seen here and elsewhere that the Trumpers would happily follow along with any lie, any normbreaking, any lawbreaking, any corruption, any Trumper propaganda no matter how absurd and humiliating, any police abuse of others, anything Trump wants.

    The only reason we’re not marching straight to fascism right now is that the economy is generally fine, and Trump is more a lazy and stupid narcissist than a competent, power-hungry schemer.

  4. teve tory says:

    Does American Exceptionalism refer to Exceptional Corruption?

    Yet another HUD story has reporters from both the Washington Post and CNN uncovering considerable evidence that HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s son, who does not work at HUD, is nonetheless intimately involved in HUD business mostly in ways designed to benefit himself personally.

    Alan Rappeport of the New York Times reported that not only has the payday lending industry won a number of regulatory favors from the Trump administration, they’ll be repaying the president personally by holding their annual retreat at the Trump Doral Golf Club.

  5. Mister Bluster says:

    @gVOR08:..As I said few days ago, it’s time to ask if it’s possible to have both FOX News and democracy.

    Yes. Yes you did.
    I am still curious if you have a remedy for this dilemma.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    We have a cultural divide mirrored in our politics. There’s the dominant, vibrant culture, essentially liberal culture – free speech, free press, reproductive choice, BLM, gay marriage, transgender folk in the military, legal weed, secularism etc… That culture has advanced by leaps and bounds.

    And then there’s the fossil culture, the culture of relics: Confederate flags and statues, megachurches, the Old Testament, guns, subordinate women and macho men, small towns, backyard barbecues and opioids.

    The dominant culture has plowed right through the fossil culture, like a cavalry charge through disorganized infantry. Now the infantry are regrouping, forming a square, and they’ve grabbed a loudmouth sergeant they like because he curses the officers behind their backs and made him their Colonel.

    Stalemate for now. The stalemate will be broken in about nine months unless someone arrests the loudmouth sergeant before then.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    I really doubt that this is a general problem. People who identify as Republicans seem incapable of judging a news source beyond “Do they support my team?” I really don’t see the Independents and the Dems drinking the same koolaid

  8. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @teve tory: Yeah, but Ted Cruz is waiting in the wings. I think he might pull of the transition.

  9. teve tory says:

    Cruz is scary but doesn’t have trump’s appeal. We’ve def seen from his base that they’ll throw away any principle for powet.

  10. iSeeDumbPeople says:

    @teve tory: “Every condition you need for fascism exists currently in the US except two: 1) a serious economic downturn”

    Oopsie. And then there was one.

  11. teve tory says:

    The stock market isn’t the economy, but I do expect a recession in the next couple of years.

  12. Tyrell says:

    More than once I have noted the decline in the quality, respect, and professionalism of many news media outlets. Most are giving slanted propaganda instead of the facts. The news now has to be sensationalized: “breaking news” (it isn’t). Many of the commentators now resort to berating and hollering at their guests and each other. I used to watch CNN and am saddened at their shocking decline in the last few years. Their lack of professionalism would not have occurred under Ted Turner’s watch.
    I have moved on to alternative sources that report the news, offering interesting information, and a positive atmosphere that the whole family can watch.
    No doubt that the news industry is undergoing a total transformation, a reformation of sorts. We miss Conkrite, Brinkley, Reasoner, Murrow, Smith, and the amazing Charles Kuralt. We miss professionals.

  13. Mister Bluster says:

    Most are giving slanted propaganda instead of the facts.

    See Fox News
    “We distort. You run and hide.”