Poll: More Americans say the media has done more to divide the country than say Trump has

Ed touched on this earlier but it deserves its own thread, particularly in light of the press’s chattering about Trump’s corrosive effect on American “unity.” It’s a fun poll but one with obvious flaws.

Per the fact that the Trump/media numbers in each group don’t add up to 100 percent, the question wasn’t presented as an either/or option. Morning Consult didn’t ask which of the two, Trump or the press, has done more to divide Americans. They asked whether each has done more to divide or unite Americans. (In theory both could have scored 100.) So what’s the problem? For starters, they’re pitting a single individual (albeit a singularly famous, powerful individual) against a group of people, and not a well-defined group of people either. Are blogs part of the national news media? What about late-night hosts, or at least those who specialize in news commentary like John Oliver or Samantha Bee? The bigger and blurrier the group you’re asking about, the easier it is to think of any member of that group who fits the bill. Ask the average Trumper if Ben Sasse has done more to divide than unite the country and they might not have a strong opinion. Ask them if Never Trumpers as a group have done more to divide than unite the country and their eyes will light up. “Absolutely!”

The other flaw is that the poll pits someone who attracts intense partisan tribal loyalties even by normal political standards against a group that’s technically non-partisan and whose admirers are certainly less tribal in their devotion. Ed noted this quote from the president of Media Matters: “The press themselves have become a tribe, as opposed to a foundational source of information. They’re viewed as much as a political player as advocate groups or partisan interests are.” That’s true — the media itself has never been more of a tribe than it is now in its opposition to Trump, as Jon Stewart noted yesterday. But although the balance of coverage is tilted against one side, they do sometimes bite their fellow travelers. #MeToo reporting has sunk plenty of prominent liberals, to take one recent example. To take a more distant example, anti-war liberals would happily recount for you at length how the media whiffed on its reporting about Iraq’s WMDs during preparations for the Iraq war. They can’t be counted on to the same extent as a political leader can to side with their ideological allies in all matters. And so when you ask people a gut-check question about “causing division,” Republicans will circle the wagons for Trump to a greater extent than Democrats will for the media.

Plus, here again you have the problem of letting people define “the media” for themselves. Invite a Republican to render a negative judgment about “the media” and he’ll think of CNN or the New York Times. Invite a Democrat to render one and he’ll think of Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. That like explains the asymmetry in a surprising 46 percent of Dems saying the media has done more to divide than unite Americans versus just 25 percent of Republicans saying that Trump has. When asked about “the media” people can substitute any disfavored figure that comes to mind. When asked about Trump they’re forced to react to a particular person.

But that’s not to say the poll is worthless. Not only is the media a distinct tribe in the age of Trump, it’s a highly sanctimonious one. Losing to their archenemy on a gut-check question like this, even one that’s flawed, might at least encourage them to do some soul-searching about their dumber tribal instincts. Exit question: Which left-winger wrote the following tribute to “our friend,” the press?

America is indebted as a democratic nation to the free press for truths it has uncovered, for truth it has disseminated, and for falsehoods it has repudiated. The press uncovered the government’s lies about the war in Vietnam; it exposed Watergate; it opened our eyes to the sexual abuse of children by priests; and, most recently, it shed a light on the sexual assault by numerous men in power. The free press dispelled the false conspiracies about the 9/11 attacks, President Obama’s birth, and Joe McCarthy’s lurking communists. The work of a free press is essential…

[D]enigrating the media diminishes an institution that is critical to democracy, both here and abroad. As a political tactic, it may be brilliant, but it comes with a large cost to the cause of freedom…

I sometimes become irritated by stories I know are wrong, especially when they are about me. But I cannot conceive of thinking or saying that the media or any responsible news organization is an enemy. The media is essential to our Republic, to our freedom, to the cause of freedom abroad, and to our national security. It is very much our friend.

The answer may surprise you! Although, no, it probably won’t.

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