Mainstream Media Are in Big Trouble, and They Know It
Updated: Sep 5
Fewer than half of all Americans trust the news they're supposed to trust. But the media has a plan to fix that.
According to the newly released Edelman Trust Barometer, the U.S. is currently in the grips of an epic "trust"crisis.
The sobering report suggests that while Americans crave facts now more than ever, they simply don’t know what to believe anymore. As a result, they have a deep and accelerating distrust of almost everything, including leaders across every area of their lives. But nowhere is this absence of trust more apparent than in traditional media:
56% agree with the statement that "Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations."
58% think that "most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.
These numbers are alarming industry leaders, but they come as no surprise to anyone who’s stopped playing along with the charade of a “free and independent media.” Because if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we know what mainstream news outlets really are these days: shrill and shameless echo chambers. They dispense packaged narratives laced with soundbites we repeat in our sleep and in casual conversation. They condition us to believe everything “experts” tell us and laugh at anyone who questions them. They skewer public figures they loathe and fawn over those they adore.
This isn’t how you inform people; it’s how you brainwash them. And more than half of all Americans are finally picking up on what’s happening.
You might think mainstream media would be discouraged by this staggering lack of trust, but they’re not. In fact, they’re determined to fix the problem by any means necessary. Axios recently asked some of the industry’s brightest minds for solutions to the deepening trust crisis, and you’re not going to believe what they’ve come up with.
According to Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan, restoring trust in “fact-based” news will require journalists to do more than just give the public “truthful information”; they’ll also need to find ways to make sure that information is “widely accepted.”
Please re-read that, because it’s not a typo. The media that’s trying to win back our trust thinks we should no longer have the freedom to believe (or not believe) what they tell us. Keep in mind these are the same people who spent the past four years frantically warning us that Russians are trying to undermine our democracy. Apparently, when a foreign country uses social media to influence our elections, it’s a mortal danger to everything America stands for. But when we lose the right to think and believe what we want, it’s no big deal. Sure, that makes sense.
One can only imagine the lengths to which these crusaders intend to go to ensure the facts they dispense are “widely accepted.” I’m guessing it will involve more frequent and liberal use of words like “conspiracy theory,” “baseless,” “terrorist” — or anything else they can think of to shame us into submission or silence. The problem with this heavy-handed tactic is that it hasn’t played out so well in the past. In fact, it’s likely the reason why trust in the media has plummeted to an all-time low. So if they're going to turn this ship around, they're going to need some help.
That’s why industry insiders are now quietly buzzing about the need to enlist other institutions — ones that the public still trusts — to “visibly embrace” the media (translation: to make sure the "facts" they give us are “widely accepted"). Using surrogates to win public confidence is nothing new, of course. Decades ago, when eroding public trust began complicating its efforts to dispense propaganda, the U.S. government turned to the media to massage public opinion. But now that the media is losing trust on a massive level, a new surrogate must be found.
So which trusted institution are the media counting on to back up the news they deliver to a jaded public?
According to Edelman's global survey, business sits at the top of the list. Incredibly, it's now the only major institution that is seen as both "competent and ethical," out-ranking government, media, and even non-governmental organizations like the United Nations. A deeper dive into the data shows why this matters so much in the U.S.
When polled after the 2020 election, 57% of Biden supporters said they trusted the media, compared to only 18% of Trump supporters. In other words, the media has a big trust gap to fill with voters on both ends of the political spectrum, but it's a yawning chasm with Republicans. Yet when it comes to business, it's a different story. 55% of both Biden and Trump supporters trust companies and the people who run them. In fact, a whopping 61% of Trump voters say they trust their employer's CEO. As it incredible as it may sound, heads of business are now believed to be the only societal leaders who can be trusted to "tell the truth and fix problems."
According to Axios, this is something we should all be very excited about. Why? Because business leaders can save an America in crisis. Because the people who upgraded our country's physical infrastructure in the past can surely be counted upon to "help rebuild our civic infrastructure" in the future. Sure, they get trillions of dollars in interest-free loans and bailouts while the rest of us muddle through with meager stimulus checks, but they still care about us. They've earned our trust, and they can capitalize on that confidence to "preserve America's system of governance."
The idea of enlisting altruistic CEOs to "save" America may sound crazy, but if you've been paying close attention you can see it's a solution that's already being put into action. Heads of major companies have recently stepped into the "leadership void" during the Coronavirus pandemic and with a wide range of other issues like immigration, climate change, and racial injustice. Corporate titans are quietly setting themselves up as a "permanent political force, wielding awesome power." Soon, they will become "the fourth branch of government."
So prepare yourself. Going forward, we're likely to see more business leaders actively supporting whatever the media tell us. CEOs will be called upon to help bring stubborn thinkers into line. Whether it's Bill Gates assuring us that vaccines are safe and effective, Jamie Dimon (CEO of JP Morgan Chase) telling us the economy has made a stunning comeback from disastrous lockdowns, or Jeff Bezos warning us that white supremacists are clear and present threats to democracy, America's new politicians will be called upon to lend trust to media that can no longer be taken seriously.
And let's not forget that corporate titans bring another valuable asset to the table: they wield power to control money and commerce. Unlike the media, they have the power to force us to behave, and they can make our lives very difficult if we don't. Big Tech has already shown it has no qualms about muzzling political voices on the fringe, but this might be just the beginning. Imagine getting this notice from Amazon or Wells Fargo: "Your order/deposit cannot be processed at this time due to information we've received from one of our partners about your online activities."That may have sounded far-fetched five years ago, but would you really be surprised to see it happen in the near future?
Here's what media insiders and good Samaritan CEOs are missing: trust can't be finagled or forced; it must be earned by those who want it. And when people believe an institution is fundamentally corrupt, they’re not going to trust it, regardless of the tricks employed or the surrogates it appoints. Business leaders may (for the moment) be more "trusted" than a politician or journalist, but they won't maintain that trust if they insult our intelligence by parroting narratives dispensed by people we clearly don't trust. The average American may not be a genius or an "expert," but they're not stupid.
The solution to this trust crisis is actually quite simple: give us a reason to trust any institution, and we're likely to believe what what we're told. Give us the freedom to access information and opinions from a wide range of sources, and let us decide what to believe or not to believe. Until that happens, fewer Americans are going to be listening to anyone.