After Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, in which comedian Michelle Wolf roasted President Donald Trump, his staff and the Republican-led Congress before an audience of journalists, politicians and celebrity guests, there was abundant criticism that the spectacle illustrates why conservatives don’t trust the media.
Meg Kinnard, a political reporter for the Associated Press based in South Carolina, said Wolf’s act and the appearance that journalists at the dinner condoned it will make her job harder.
She tweeted “If the #WHCDdinner did anything tonight, it made the chasm between journalists and those who don’t trust us, even wider. And those of us based in the red states who work hard every day to prove our objectivity will have to deal with it.”
But a letter sent to member on Sunday by from Margaret Talev, senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg and the association’s chair, raised the ire of liberals, who accused Talev of throwing Wolf under the bus.
“Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission,” Talev said.
The response to Talev’s letter highlights another, less discussed fact: Many liberals don’t trust the media, either.
Confidence in the media has been rising among Democrats since Trump entered the Oval Office, but that does not mean that the left doesn’t have their trust issues.
While the majority - 74 percent - of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents give the media favorable remarks, 19 percent express “a great deal” of confidence in media reporting, according to a November Poynter Media Trust survey conducted by YouGov. Roughly half of Democrats say the news media tends to favor one side, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, and a third of Democrats express a lot of trust in the information they get from national news organizations.
And more than one in four Democrats perceive a great deal of political bias in news coverage, according to a Gallup survey from late last summer to early fall.
The lack of trust in the media mirrors a declining trust in all institutions. People do not trust the media, the government, churches or other bastions of society as much as they did decades ago. As author Bill Bishop wrote in The Washington Post: “Everything about modern life works against community and trust.”
But the reasons for the lack of trust vary.
Mistrust in the media among conservatives has been growing for decades. Republican leaders like former House speaker Newt Gingrich, right-wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and religious conservatives like Jerry Falwell Jr. have painted journalists in Washington and New York City as too far removed from the values of “real Americans” to write about them with fairness and accuracy.
But mistrust from the left usually comes from a different place. The left often charges that reporters from the establishment media can become too close to the people they cover - socially and, sometimes, ideologically - to report honestly.
Charlotte Clymer, an activist who works for the Human rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, did not take to well to journalists defending White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders after she was targeted by Wolf at the dinner. Clymer tweeted:
“Tonight, you are seeing a grand performative rush to preserve ‘access journalism’, and it is a very sad sight.
“When journalists hold a comic more accountable than the ‘president’ for the things they do and say, that should be an indicator that things are going badly. #WHCD”
Speaking of access, the dinner is one part of a weekend filled with elaborate galas, parties and brunches, where journalists laugh and drink with the lawmakers and others that the public expects them to cover objectively. When partisans who regularly appear on cable news shows voraciously attacking the integrity of their political opponents are then seen socializing with the journalists who cover them in lighthearted ways, some Americans lose trust in the mainstream media.
And, lastly, some in the mainstream media don’t look like the communities they cover - or fail to cover. Members of the demographic groups most critical of this president aren’t all on the anti-Trump train simply because they don’t like his tone. They don’t like the policies he is proposing, and they often feel like the mainstream media is failing to give these issues the coverage they deserve.
Tanzina Vega, host of the Takeaway on WNYC, highlighted several issues of concern about the media held by Americans more likely to identify with the left:
“Since we’re talking about media outrage, how about that 84 percent of newsrooms are white and majority male? Anyone? … Or the fact that many of our biggest newsrooms continue to hire from the same elite circles? … Or that women of color and people from marginalized groups rarely - if ever - get the hired as staff opinion writers and columnists? Or top WH correspondents? Or investigative reporters? … Or that because of unpaid internships, low-paying jobs, etc., many low-income people cannot afford to pursue journalism as a career?”
The fallout from Saturday night’s dinner provides an opportunity for journalists to reflect on how they are perceived by the Americans whose trust they want to earn. But if that reflection is limited to the concerns of conservative Trump supporters in red states, the left’s trust in those journalists could further erode.
Eugene Scott is a columnist with The Washington Post.