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20 January 2021

Joe Biden and the US media’s fight to restore objective truth

After four years of Donald Trump, just one in ten Republicans says they trust the media.

By Dominic Ponsford

Ask a UK news media executive what their biggest priority is for the year ahead and they will say finding a way to make journalism pay and keep everyone in a job. But when Press Gazette asked US news executives the same question at the start of the year, the answer was often a far more fundamental challenge: re-establishing the hegemony of objective truth. 

After four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, the existence of climate change, fair elections and a virus, the spread of which is curbed by wearing a face mask, have all become relative concepts. While US news media organisations from Fox to the New York Times have benefited from the sheer car-crash watchability of Trump, in the longer term Trumpism poses a serious threat to the basis of news media.

Press Gazette: Editors outline the biggest challenges for journalism in 2021 Part of New Statesman Media Group

Trump’s constant attacks on the “fake news media” have given rise to a crisis of trust. Just 10 per cent of Republicans say they trust the industry, and a sizeable minority of Americans (and Brits) no longer engage with TV news, newspapers or reputable news websites. Instead they get their news from content shared on social media and burgeoning alternative outlets. 

At the US Capitol earlier this month, this distrust of the media erupted into actual violence as journalists were attacked by a mob during the invasion of the US legislature.

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“We seem to be losing a common sense of reality, of fact,” Gary Pruitt, the chief executive of Associated Press, told Press Gazette. “Different people have different views on reality. And that is more challenging for all media, but especially for an organisation like AP because it is fact-based journalism.

Press Gazette: Four years of presidential press attacks charted Part of New Statesman Media Group

“So we will be attacked by people who say something isn’t factual. There are so many conspiracy theories and false information out in the media world, not just on social media but other media outlets. We will be attacked or criticised if it doesn’t comply with somebody’s world view,” Pruitt added.

“And we’ve seen a greater degree of that, up to and including threats that can be ugly. It’s a challenging time, and I think that the most troubling piece is that we, as a society, not just in the United States but globally, we need to have a common base of facts.

“People can disagree about policy approaches or how to handle something. That’s fine. But we seem to be losing a common sense of reality, of facts. And that can be a very troubling thing. And that’s why we feel our role is more important than ever. But it is more difficult than ever.”

While the mainstream media fights to re-establish basic objective truth, the alternative media seems likely to boom in the US. One America News is a cable channel that has experienced significant growth in recent months and may well continue to provide coverage for a Trump exiled from mainstream media (and even social media).

Press Gazette: How Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy and far-right outlets are taking on Fox News Part of New Statesman Media Group

The alternative social media site Parler also experienced a surge in popularity before it was shut down by its hosting provider, Amazon. It has since reappeared online, with the help of a Russian-owned technology company, and looks likely to be another willing home for those who favour conspiracy theories over evidence-backed reality.

While Trump may have left the White House, the fight continues to persuade news consumers to choose unpalatable truth over media outlets that profit by giving people a version of the world as they would like to see it.

There will always be a market for telling people want they want to hear. The challenge for news media companies over the next four years will be to somehow make reality more compelling.

The future of their businesses, and of democracy itself, depends on them succeeding.