Look back to 1998 and try to imagine an era in which the share of Democrats and the share of Republicans who agreed that news outlets were generally accurate were almost identical. I lived through it and I can’t get my head around it now. In fact, I can’t get my head around the idea that a majority of Republicans ever believed that news outlets were mostly accurate. Pre-talk-radio, sure, but by 1998 the Limbaugh era was well under way. Imagine: A one-point difference between the parties in ’98 and just a seven-point difference between them in 2003 compared to … a 48-point difference now. Hard not to notice that that coincides pretty well with the Internet explosion and the rise of partisan media outlets online.
It looks like the last time Gallup asked this question was 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion. You would think they’d be testing it regularly, partly as a gauge of partisan polarization and partly to see how faith in this particular American institution has waxed and waned over the years. For instance, I’m guessing that Democrats’ faith in the accuracy of media dipped sharply in 2004 or 2005 as it became clearer that there were no huge stockpiles of WMDs in Iraq. Republicans’ faith in media probably sank in 2009 when Obama assumed office and stayed depressed due to media slobber over O, but it’d be nice to know where those numbers stood compared to the current numbers. As chance would have it, though, Gallup has asked a very similar question regularly over the last 20 years:
My instinct about Iraq coverage was wrong. Democrats’ faith in the media did drop in 2004 but it grew between 2004 and 2005 despite the backlash over WMD reporting. Why? Because the media became harshly critical of, and overly oppositional to, the war itself. For the same reason, Republicans’ faith in the media tanked and still hasn’t recovered. There was another huge dip among Republicans last year, no doubt for another harshly critical, oppositional stance the media took — opposition to Trump during the campaign.
Interestingly, Democrats’ trust didn’t rise correspondingly last year, probably because both sides are inclined to grumble about their candidates’ coverage in the heat of an election. (Dems even now will tell you that coverage of Emailgate was supposedly out of all proportion to Hillary’s sins.) But that was 2016. Now it’s 2017, the election is past, and the media is more oppositional to Trump than ever, so Democrats are free to declare their faith in the accuracy of news organizations once again while Republicans remain deeply negative. To put all of this another way, the “faith in media” question is really just a proxy for the question “How nasty is the media being to people whom Democrats hate?” No wonder we’re at maximum polarization right now.