Journalists grapple with the media's role in losing the trust of the public

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Journalist Jonah Goldberg addresses an audience.
Journalist Jonah Goldberg addresses the conservative Defending the American Dream Summit in 2011. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At a conference on disinformation held in Chicago, journalists grappled on Thursday with the media’s role in losing the trust of the public.

“The mainstream media — sometimes I hate that term — did a lot of things that led conservatives to think they're not going to treat us fairly,” said Stephen Hayes, co-founder of the Dispatch, a right-leaning news website launched in 2019, during a panel discussion at Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy, the conference hosted by the Atlantic magazine and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

Hayes was a contributor at Fox News until late last year, when he and his colleague Jonah Goldberg, another Dispatch co-founder, quit in protest over the increasing radicalization of Fox opinion hosts like Tucker Carlson. At the conference, Hayes again spoke about his objections to Carlson’s “deeply, deeply irresponsible” programming. He cited Carlson’s “Patriot Purge” program — which argued that the riot of Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol was a “setup” meant to entrap law-abiding Trump supporters — as what he considered the last straw that prompted him to leave the network. (Yahoo News has published a thorough examination of Carlson’s claims on that program, and the lack of evidence for them.)

In separate appearances at the conference Thursday, Hayes and Goldberg both spoke at length about how failures by the news media to treat conservatives fairly — especially at key inflection points in American politics — make the job of fighting disinformation much harder, because they alienate many of the same Americans most vulnerable to lies and manipulation by bad-faith actors.

“If you want to get to a place where we really understand the roots of some of this, it's important that people say, ‘Hey, this is how roughly half the country — the politically active types — see this, and this is one of the reasons that explains why there's so much mistrust,'” Hayes said.

President Biden on a walkway on a plane with his son Hunter, in a mask, carrying Beau.
President Biden, his son Hunter and grandson Beau board Air Force One in March 2021. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Jim Rutenberg, a New York Times media columnist who moderated the panel with Hayes, CNN’s Brian Stelter and Lauren Williams of Capital B, all discussed a profound existential question concerning the status and future of mainstream journalism.

“If our business is first and foremost about reflecting the world accurately [and] if our likely readers ... don't trust us, then we can't accomplish our job,” Rutenberg said.

Rutenberg also noted that the issue of how the media and big tech companies handled the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop in 2020 had been “a theme running through” the day’s multiple conversations.

Goldberg, in an earlier panel, put the Hunter Biden laptop story into a broader context. To prove his point about the media’s mistreatment of conservatives, Goldberg recalled the Dan Rather “Memogate” scandal in the fall of 2004. Rather, a veteran CBS News anchor, reported on documents purporting to show that President George W. Bush had received political favors to avoid getting drafted into combat service in Vietnam. The documents were later shown to be inauthentic.

In retrospect, Goldberg said, that mistake helped reveal a pervasive double standard on display in the media coverage of Hunter Biden’s laptop, whose contents are alleged to have contained evidence of potentially illegal business dealings. In the laptop case, the approach used by the media and big tech was to be skeptical of a story that could hurt a Democratic presidential candidate just before an election. Equally, with Memogate, Rather and CBS News were insufficiently skeptical of a story that could have boosted the support for a Democratic presidential candidate just before an election.

“Have more conservatives in your editorial rooms,” Goldberg said when asked what media institutions need to do better. “Dan Rather would not have climbed up the jackass tree and fell down, hitting every branch on the way, over the Memogate story, if they just had one person in the room who didn't want that story to be true, right?”

“It was too good to check, and so everyone was all in on saying, ‘We've got the story, we're going to nail George W. Bush,’” Goldberg said. “And if you had just one person in the room who says, ‘I really don't want this story to be true,’ and they'd asked painful questions, ‘60 Minutes’ wouldn't have done that.”

Goldberg also mentioned the media’s coverage of the allegations of sexual assault made against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“You had all sorts of people starting from the position that his accusers were telling the truth, even though they could not verify any of it,” Goldberg said. He noted that the media’s lack of skepticism toward and the elevation of accusations against Kavanaugh from a number of women who later backtracked or admitted their accusations had been fabricated is something that has “united the right, to this day.”

Hayes summed it up this way: “You see that, and it becomes a pattern. You get to the point where conservatives say, ‘I don't trust any of it.’”

Former President Barack Obama, points his index finger in the air, in conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, in front of an audience, with the title of the conference, Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy, posted on the screen behind them.
Former President Barack Obama with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of the Atlantic, at the Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy conference at the University of Chicago on Wednesday. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Former President Barack Obama, who spoke at the conference on Wednesday, lamented the “breakdown” of the journalistic consensus on how to cover the news and the rise of misinformation in the age of social media.

“What we’ve seen is a breakdown of that consensus, and what we’ve seen is a shift in technology and who controls these platforms in ways that are not transparent. And that has contributed to anger, a sense in which we are no longer operating by the same rules or on the same facts,” Obama said.