When even clickbait proves more accurate than a CNN political story, it’s tough to brush off complaints of news media bias as a figment of conservative critics’ imagination.
Eric Trump clicked “like” on an offensive tweet about Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden named her his running mate, CNN reported on its website.
The story’s central claim is true, but CNN Politics breaking-news reporter Devan Cole then pounced on President Donald Trump, casting his more conventional critiques of Harris as nefarious.
Trump said Harris is “nasty” and accused her of being “disrespectful” to Biden in Democratic primary debates, the story noted.
“The insults by the president all played into racist and sexist stereotypes about black women and made clear that Trump does not intend to throw away a playbook filled with misogynistic attacks and dog-whistle racism that have imbued his political career,” Cole wrote.
While Trump’s record of controversial public statements is long, the two examples Cole cited fail to support his premise. “Nasty” and “disrespectful” carry neither racist nor sexist connotations. They’re garden-variety jabs that fall within the bounds of ordinary political pugilism.
For Trump, those adjectives are tame.
CNN wasn’t out on a creaky limb by itself; The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian also criticized Trump’s use of the word “nasty.”
Calling Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during the 2016 presidential campaign famously backfired, as Clinton and her supporters reclaimed the label as a badge of honor. But Trump also used the word “nasty” to describe two male senators — Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. That suggests he considers it an all-purpose insult, not a sexist slight.
The relevant context comes not from CNN but from People magazine. A People.com headline reads like an inadvertent fact-check: “The Many People Donald Trump Has Called ‘Nasty’ (and It’s Not Just Women).” The story that followed was a click-through gallery with pictures of Trump’s past foes.
Undercut by a listicle, Cole’s broadside against Trump appeared under the guise of news coverage. Editorializing is fine when an opinion piece is clearly marked as commentary or analysis. Using what’s supposed to be an objective story to make the dubious claim that the word “disrespectful” is inherently racist and sexist diminishes CNN’s credibility.
Blending fact and opinion is a symptom of a growing disease. Nearly 3 out of 4 people believe biased news reporting is a major problem, according to “American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy,” a survey the Knight Foundation produced in cooperation with Gallup pollsters.
Results show 49 percent of Americans see “a great deal” of political bias in news coverage, while 37 percent say there’s “a fair amount” of partisan slant. Many more Republicans (71 percent) than Democrats (22 percent) have an unfavorable view of the news media. A slight majority of independents (52 percent) share the GOP’s skepticism. But political ideology isn’t the sole variable.
Among Americans 65 and older — the generation that grew up reading newspapers and watching broadcast stalwarts like Edward R. Murrow — 44 percent have a favorable view of news media.
But just 19 percent of adults under 30 share that positive impression. As these respondents grew up, shoutfests became the norm on cable TV, and Facebook, Twitter and Google became the dominant news platforms.
Overall, young Americans are more likely than their elders to favor liberal social policies. The crisis of media confidence isn’t just a right-wing phenomenon.
The bright spot is local news, which the poll correlates with civic engagement.
“Americans who follow local news closely are more likely to vote in local elections and to feel attached to their communities,” a survey summary states. “They are less likely to say that ‘people like me don’t have any say in what the government does.’”
Though critics often lash out at “the media” as if all news outlets were monolithic, Knight and Gallup say respondents draw a distinction between celebrity cable anchors and the local reporters they encounter at city council meetings and high school football games.
In a nation founded on freedom of the press, government can’t enforce fairness by regulating biased broadcasts out of existence. It’ll take informed news consumers voting with their wallets to make American journalism better.
If you read a story that seems slanted, call the newsroom, or write a letter to the editor to express your concerns. A trustworthy paper will welcome the accountability.
— Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.