WASHINGTON — Regardless of who wins the election, the press — or, at any rate, what used to be called the "mainstream" media — may be the big loser. Donald Trump is making a case that he's the victim of an orchestrated media campaign to defeat him, and although the charge is not true, it may stick among his devoted followers.
We live in an era of fragmented news sources. People can pick not only what's interesting and agreeable but also what confirms their opinions, convictions and biases. There are more choices than ever. A new Pew survey finds that adults "often" get their news from the following sources: TV, including cable (57 percent); online, including social media and smartphones (38 percent); radio (25 percent); and print newspapers (20 percent).
News has become akin to religion; it's accepted or rejected as a matter of faith, depending on the source. Consider another recent Pew poll. Respondents were asked whether on major issues Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters agree on basic facts, even if they disagree on solutions. The finding: 81 percent said they disagree even on basic facts.
Racheting up mistrust
Trump is now ratcheting up this process to a new level of mistrust. The essence of his charge is that most mainstream media reporters and editors (the type of people who work at CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times) don't like him, don't agree with him, or both, and have skewed their coverage to engineer his defeat. There is cooperation, implicit or explicit, with the Clinton campaign.
Trump is right in one sense: Much of the press dislikes him.
Take me as an example. I'm a slightly right-of-center columnist at the Post. I am no great fan of Clinton, but I believe that President Trump would be a disaster. He doesn't know anything about governing, is proud of his ignorance, stirs hatred of his critics and would throw his opponent (Clinton) in jail. This last threat is one we associate with dictatorships, not American democracy.
I suspect that most Washington Post reporters and editors feel this way, though I have no hard evidence. (For what it's worth, the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity has disclosed that 480 "journalists" have made nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions, 96 percent of which went to Clinton. Many news organizations, including the Post and The New York Times, bar contributions and involvement in partisan politics.)
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But this doesn't mean the press has hatched a conscious campaign to defeat Trump. The counterweight to personal preference is a professional ethos that emphasizes evenhandedness — at least among mainstream media organizations. Note also that editorial pages are run separately from the news pages.
Free air time
Let's put this in context. All through the primaries, Trump skillfully played the media to get free air time. He also used the media as a whipping boy, part of the dreaded "elite" that is allegedly ruining America. For these months, the media were Trump's unwitting allies.
Now, the landscape has changed. Trump is the subject of blanket coverage, much of it unfavorable. He apparently didn't pay federal income taxes for many years; he has not only made lewd comments about women but (as my colleague Eugene Robinson suggests) he appears to be a sexual predator; he says nice things about Vladimir Putin and ignores his secret national security briefings.
These stories are anti-Trump, but they're not unfair. They address a central issue in any presidential election: personal character. If Trump dislikes the results, he has mostly himself to blame, because he has been mainly responsible for projecting and defining himself. If a free press is not supposed to explore questions of character and political philosophy, what is it supposed to do?
True, if the exploration were one-sided, the media would be playing favorites. But the press has also focused on Clinton's embarrassments. Her use of a private email server has generated hundreds of stories; so have potential conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation, as have her lucrative speaking gigs. But Clinton's sins — secretiveness, arrogance, greed — seem less offensive than Trump's, which include lying, bigotry and alleged sexual misconduct.
Should Trump win, he will likely use his new powers to attack the media he dislikes. If he loses, the media — or, at any rate, much of it — will be cast as villains. Defeat will justify more false claims that he's been the victim of a "rigged" election. There was a time when the mass media were a unifying force in national life. That time has long passed.