With polls showing low public confidence in the American media, one Republican lawmaker says journalists have no one to blame but themselves for the lack of faith in their work and no way to fix it unless they change the way they report on the GOP.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has been combatting what he sees as liberal bias in the media for years, and he founded the Media Fairness Caucus in the House of Representatives in 2009 to help Republicans identify and address it.
“Media bias is the elephant in the room that a lot of Republicans are ignoring,” he said Wednesday. “They need to confront the media bias, they need to talk about it, they need to point it out.”
The caucus regularly produces newsletters doing exactly that, highlighting evidence of unfair treatment of Republican politicians and ideas in the press. The most recent edition cited a number of polls showing negative public opinion of the media and complained about a lack of coverage of fraud charges against a former Capitol Hill IT staffer who worked for several prominent Democrats.
“The media bias is palpable and it seems to be directed not only at the president but at Republicans and at conservatives,” Smith said. “As a result, Republicans are not getting their message out because the American people are only hearing one side.”
Polls referenced by the caucus show half of voters believe the media has too much influence in Washington, only about 30 percent trust the media in general, and 55 percent object to coverage of Trump.
Another recent poll found that the public trusts several individual national news outlets more than President Trump, including frequent targets of his scorn like CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.
Smith sees the negative polling data as evidence supporting his allegations that the press has veered too far left.
“I would think that would be sending a message to that liberal national media, wait a minute, if we’re at a record low with our credibility with the American people, maybe we ought to be doing something differently,” he said.
Smith insists his purpose is not to censor or coerce the media, but to hold them accountable and promote an open dialogue with the press about accurate reporting.
“What I’d like for them to be doing differently is to give the American people both sides of the story, not telling the American people what to think but giving them the facts and trusting the American people to decide what’s the right thing,” he said.
Many journalists and editors say that is already what they aim to do, but in a Fox News op-ed last week, Smith accused the press of attempting to “intimidate, silence and put Republicans on the defensive.”
“Republicans take the bait. We swallow it hook, line and sinker,” he wrote. “When a reporter calls and asks Republicans to comment on the president, legislation, or the Republican Party, many eagerly comply.”
In the op-ed, he claimed that media bias is “a threat to our democracy,” and he encouraged Republicans to point out biased reporting in speeches, letters, and social media posts.
“If the American people don’t get the facts, they can’t make good decisions,” he wrote. “And if they can’t make good decisions, our democracy is at risk.”
Democrats say Smith is misdiagnosing Republicans’ problem.
According to Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., it is the GOP’s message, not the media, that is repelling voters from the party.
"I would suggest that perhaps Lamar Smith is unhappy because the majority of American people, once they read what's in Republican bills, understand that they're not bills that are good for this country,” she said Wednesday, “and so therefore he thinks the press is biased, in influencing peoples' decisions."
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., argued fair reporting is not necessarily devoid of editorial perspective.
“They’re supposed to be fair, for sure, and make sure the various opinions are reflected,” he said, “but it’s impossible to say that no media outlet can have any sort of perspective.”
In the current media environment, audiences can easily find news outlets that support and reinforce their existing views, and Kildee acknowledged finding fair journalism can be difficult.
“The real challenge is for people who are consumers of the media to find sources that cover the broad spectrum that give them a more complete picture of what’s happening,” he said.
Democrats express some skepticism that Republican media criticism is genuinely aimed at making that effort any easier. They have also raised concerns about Republicans’ growing vilification of the media.
According to Kildee, the dismissal by President Trump and his supporters of reporting critical of his administration as “fake news” is “a false construct” aimed at discrediting all voices other than Trump’s.
“If you dissect what the president says, it is, ‘Don’t listen to my Cabinet, don’t listen to the news media, don’t listen to your senator or members of Congress, don’t listen to your neighbors, don’t listen to anyone, just listen to me,’” he said. “A frightening position for a public leader to take but it’s the position that Donald Trump seems to hold to.”
However, Smith maintains that the goal of his caucus is to improve the quality and accuracy of political journalism.
“I think and hope that the responsible media editors and reporters and publishers will respond positively to that over time,” he said. “They’ve got to know that they’re destroying their own profession and when you lose your credibility with the American people, you really don’t have anything left.”