Inside Trump's Complicated Relationship With the Press

Trump says Clinton and the media are his opponents.

August 17, 2016, 11:23 AM

— -- One of Donald Trump's favorite targets throughout his campaign has been the media, and he has lobbed a flurry of insults at reporters, including repeatedly calling them "dishonest" as well as the "worst people."

Trump has revoked press credentials for outlets he does not believe are treating him fairly, slammed an ABC News reporter as a "sleaze" (although he later praised him) and drew fire for appearing to mock a disabled reporter.

On the other hand, he has been the beneficiary of seemingly endless coverage from the time he descended an escalator at Trump Tower last year to announce his campaign, studies have shown.

He courted controversy from the get-go, drawing fire — and coverage — during that announcement by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists.

This week his distaste for the media appeared to reach a new level when he sent out a fundraising email calling for supporters to "help me fight back against the dishonest and totally biased media."

Experts like Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, say the time is ripe for anti-media discourse, given that the public's trust in the press has reached record lows in recent years.

"That trust is way down there ... probably about where used cars salesmen are at the moment," he told ABC News.

But is the rhetoric going to pay off for Trump at the voting both?

A Ready Audience

The latest national polls on voter faith in the media came in the fall of 2015, several months into the presidential race.

A Gallup poll released on Sept. 7, 2015, had Americans' trust in mass media — newspapers, TV and radio — at the lowest point since the survey started in 1997, reporting that only 40 percent of respondents said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust and confidence in the media to report the news "fully, accurately and fairly."

The poll found that trust in the media was at the highest in 1999, at 55 percent.

When political party is considered, that number drops dramatically in the case of Republicans, with 27 percent trusting, the poll said. Trust was at 38 percent with independents and 54 percent with Democrats.

In a Pew Research Center study released on Nov. 23, 2015, 65 percent of respondents said that the media were having a negative effect on the "way things are going in the country," and only 25 percent viewed the press as having a positive impact.

"There's a sense that the media is in general very sympathetic with Democratic candidates, and so you can make some hay as a Republican beating up on the media," said James Campbell, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo in New York.

Campbell, whose book "Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America" was published this summer, said that the increasing trust gap reflects a larger political trend.

"To some extent, the media fuels polarization, but to a greater extent, I think it simply reflects polarization," he told ABC News.

Historical Context of the Downward Trend in Trust

Jonathan Ladd, a Georgetown University professor who wrote the book "Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters," said political polarization is one of three factors that contribute to the disintegrating relationship between the citizenry and the political press.

He points to decreasing confidence in all institutions (like labor unions and the government), sensationalist information and criticism of the press by pundits and politicians as contributing to the downward trend in trust.

The trend reaches back decades, to 1964 with Barry Goldwater.

PHOTO: Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) arrives at O'Hare International Airport to continue his campaign for the Presidency of the United States, Feb. 08, 1964.
Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) arrives at O'Hare International Airport to continue his campaign for the Presidency of the United States, Feb. 08, 1964.
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"The first person to criticize the media in this way was Goldwater," Ladd said, calling the Arizona senator "the first real modern conservative to win the Republican nomination who's a conservative in the way conservatives are now."

Goldwater's line of attack was followed by President Richard Nixon and his Vice President Spiro Agnew, Ladd said, and carried on through the 1980s.

Campbell also pointed to a shouting match between George H.W. Bush and the press during his 1988 presidential campaign over the Iran-Contra affair. Campbell recalled it as a moment when Bush "revived" his campaign and sees the tactic being used again today.

"I think when a candidate gets down in the polls, it's easy to blame the messenger, and it becomes particularly easy when the messenger doesn't appear to be neutral," Campbell said.

Moving Forward Against the Media

Trump's decision to cry foul against the media is notable because he benefited from regular press attention during the primaries, Patterson said.

According to a report Patterson published for Harvard's Shorenstein Center, Trump received the lion's share of the press coverage for the first 24 weeks of the campaign season.

"There's nothing political that suggested that was appropriate, but that's where the audience was," Patterson said.

Trump, like many politicians, didn't have a problem with that lopsided coverage at the time, Patterson said.

"Every politician likes to have it both ways, so he's not an exception in that regard," he said.

"I don't think he's just saying that the media is against him. I think he believes the media is against him, just as I think he believes he deserved all the attention he got in the primaries," Patterson said.

While the raucous Republican primary season and public dissension within the GOP appear to have created problems in solidifying support for Trump in the party — 83 percent of mainline Republicans supported him, according to an Aug. 7 ABC News/Washington Post poll — his line of attack against media may help garner additional conservative support.

"To some degree, Trump is a person that needs to secure his base, so it's helpful to him for regular, committed Republicans who may be unsure about Trump but who are conservative," Ladd told ABC News.

"It's not a great strategy for winning over swing voters specifically," he said.

According to Ladd, attacks on the press are particularly popular with committed conservatives. "The more politically engaged you are, the more you dislike the press," he said.

Even though the press has pointed out examples of false statements from other candidates as well as from Trump during the campaign, that doesn't help increase the voters' faith in the press, Patterson said.

"It's one of those things where truth is in the eye of the beholder, and trust in the media has dropped so far that a lot of people don't trust the messenger," Patterson said.

Editor's note: The author of this story briefly worked with Jonathan Ladd as a research assistant for his book several years before it was published.

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