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On January 21, 2021, Axios, an Arlington, Virginia.-based news outlet, published an article by Felix Salmon titled “Media trust hits new low.” The article discusses a survey which suggests that more and more Americans are losing trust in traditional media. I was struck by the article’s proposed solution to the problem, which I summarize as calling in the proverbial oligarchs to restore the trust of common Americans in traditional media. I submit for the record that my framing is only mildly facetious. What could go wrong with this idea? Below, I summarize the article, its take-aways, and its purported “solution” to the distrust in media problem.

“Trust Barometer” Shows Increasing Distrust in Traditional Media

Mr. Salmon’s article was prompted by the results of Edelman’s “trust barometer,” an annual survey that purports to discover the extent of Americans’ trust in various institutions. According to the survey, 56% of respondents believe that journalists and reporters purposefully try to mislead people and that 58% believe that most news organizations are primarily concerned with advancing particular ideologies and political positions. Edelman suggests that distrust is particularly high among Republicans – with only 18% of Republican respondents agreeing that they trust the media. It reported that 57% of Democrats trust the media, which I would not consider entirely encouraging for traditional media outlets if that number is accurate.

Before continuing, I note that I take no position on the accuracy of Edelman’s findings. While I have heard of the survey in prior years, I never paid much attention to it. Furthermore, I do not know anything about Edelman’s methodology. With that being said, its findings that an increasing number of Americans distrust traditional media is in accord with my perception of the current state of affairs.

The Reasons for Distrust in Media

My purpose in writing this article is not to opine on the actual reasons for the growing distrust in traditional media. For whatever its worth, I think that traditional media brought many of its problems on itself, for reasons I discussed indirectly in my essays on fact-checking reform and my criticism of much of the discourse around China’s role in the ongoing Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. When a major media organization for years shares an office building with a designated terrorist organization and then obfuscates after the fact about its knowledge of having done so, astute news consumers may have cause to distrust its reporting without needing to resort to bizarre conspiracy theories.

There are myriad reasons people distrust traditional media, and not all are the fault of traditional media outlets. For example, I have discussed the serious problem of people relying on big tech social media and search engines as their primary information portals. But, in a general sense,I submit that decision-makers at traditional media outlets have not been innocent bystanders in their credibility crisis.

The Article’s Author Reveals His Views

After Mr. Salmon reports on the results of the Edelman’s survey, he moved on to an analysis section. While I threw my cards on the table in the previous paragraph, Mr. Salmon adopts an editorializing-without-editorializing approach to discussing the take-aways from the story. It is clear from Mr. Salmon’s own words and his curated selection of citations to authorities that he views distrust in media as a problem, and that the problem is “you, not me.”

For example, he quotes a “vaccine rumor hunter” named Ms. Heidi Larson, who had stated that “we don’t have a misinformation problem, we have a trust problem.” Mr. Salmon offers this quote out of the context of the article in which it appeared. Ms. Larson’s quote, in vacuum, has merit on the issue of trust in vaccines, although I submit for reasons beyond the scope of this article that traditional media does not have entirely clean hands on this matter. To apply the quote to the broader issue, however, encapsulates the “it’s not me, it’s you” perspective.

Before offering “solutions” to the trust in traditional media issue, Mr. Salmon quotes several traditional media figures assuring us of the purity of their mission. Most notably, he quotes the mission statement of his own outlet, which reads that Axios exists to “help restore trust in fact-based news.”

According to Mr. Salmon, “mistrust of media is now a central part of many Americans’ personal identity – an article of faith that they weren’t argued into and can’t be argued out of.” While there is a kernel of truth there, I would suggest that some of Mr. Salmon’s analysis and quotes suggests that an article of faith in the faultlessness of traditional media is necessary for working in certain newsrooms.

Call in the Oligarchs to Restore Trust in Traditional Media

Mr. Salmon is not without hope that trust in traditional media outlets and newer outlets such as Axios can be restored. In search of a solution, he turns to the very same Edelman’s survey that revealed that a majority of news-consuming Americans do not trust him. He observes that Edelman’s survey disclosed that CEOs, which he described as “the fourth branch of government,” are among the more trusted institutions in the survey. Even the people who most distrust the media trust (some) CEOs: “61% of Trump voters say they trust their employer’s CEO.”

Eureka! Mr. Salmon is now a man with a plan:

CEOs have long put themselves forward as the people able to upgrade America’s physical infrastructure. Now it’s time for them to use the trust they’ve built up to help rebuild our civic infrastructure.

Call in the oligarchs to lecture ordinary Americans about the virtues of traditional media. What could go wrong?

Illustration of a gentleman and gentlewomen talking at a reception from Mark Twain and Dudley Warner's "The Gilded Age" (1873)
“The problem isn’t the journalists, it’s you, my dear” – Picture clipped from “The Gilded Age” (1873) by Mark Twain and Dudley Warner

Mr. Salmon seems to suggest that if 61% of people who voted for Mr. Trump last November trust their own CEO, it follows that they would trust CEOs in the abstract. “My boss just gave me a raise, so I will listen to what the foreign national CEO of Coca Cola has to say about my state’s election laws.”

As we know well, this logic also applies to Congressional elections. Congress typically boasts similar approval ratings to bedbug infestations. For that reason, most members of Congress are voted out every election. Right? No one (save for millions of voters every two years) ever says: “Congress is terrible, but my representative is one of the good ones.”

This Idea Sounds Familiar

When reading Mr. Salmon’s astute analysis, one thought occurred to me. Is Mr. Salmon aware that Amazon’s CEO, the richest man in the world, owns one of the three most-circulated newspapers in the United States? I am not sure he is after having read the article. Maybe people who do not trust the media are not aware that the soon-to-be-former CEO of Amazon owns a major national newspaper. Many of them like shopping on Amazon. Mr. Bezos presumably thinks that people should trust his newspaper. Eureka! Problem solved.

I would suggest calling in some big tech figures too. Who does not trust Mr. Mark Zuckerberg and Mr. Jack Dorsey? Mr. Tim Cook of Apple could help restore the trust of Americans in reputable foreign outlets like China Daily. Google could help Mr. Cook with China Daily.

Of course, Mr. Trump’s supporters are not the only people who distrust the media. According to Edelman’s, only 57% of Democrats trust traditional media. There are certainly no aggrieved Democrat-leaning voters who believe that their two-time preferred candidate was treated unfairly by traditional media outlets. Their trust in people is also known to be positively influenced by how much money the person has – billionaires are preferred. If any of these people are among the many Democrats and non-affiliated voters who distrust today’s media, nothing will bring them home like a CEO whose wealth is envied by Eastern European oligarchs bearing the message that “you are the problem.”

“It’s not the journalists, it’s you. Trust me, I run a successful business and the reporters you don’t trust schmooze me at cocktail parties.”

It is probably a unifying message. “Unifying” can mean many things.

On Charitability

My philosophy professors often encouraged us to treat philosophical ideas charitably. To be sure, I did not treat Mr. Salmon’s idea for a CEO-led pro-media campaign idea charitably. Regardless of how one treats the idea, however, the conclusion remains the same. It would fail utterly at its ostensible objective, although it would make for an interesting sort of performance art experiment.

A Somewhat More Serious Assessment

Liking one’s own CEO, like approving of one’s own congressman or congresswoman, has little bearing on whether one trusts all CEOs. Likewise. while someone may like CEOs in the abstract this does not mean that he or she trusts particular CEOs, or that even a collective trust in CEOs is unconditional. For example, a person may trust CEOs because he or she does not associate business leaders with politics – rightly or wrongly. Many Republicans of yesteryear and current Wall Street Journal op-ed page aficionados had and have a tendency to trust business leaders due to an overall pro-business worldview. Many Democrats today may trust certain CEOs and businesses that choose sides on cultural political and racial issues.

To the extent to which some people view CEOs positively in the abstract, those views often depend either on the perception that CEOs are apolitical or that they are correct on some issues of importance. Few people are so attached to a positive view of CEOs that they would be inclined to change a deeply-held view – recall that Mr. Salmon’s proposals are directed at people who treat distrust of media as an article of faith – because a CEO argues that he or she should. It is more likely that the person would assume a negative view of the CEO who is lecturing him or her, and perhaps begin to associate CEOs generally with a negative feeling.

Furthermore, Mr. Salmon failed to consider the possibility that people who are inclined to distrust CEOs and wealthy people generally may assume a negative view of journalists if they perceive that the interests of journalists are coextensive with the interests of big business.

The D.C.-bubble is a dangerous place.