The Deterioration of the Media in the Eyes of the American Electorate

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08/02/20 Politics Reference this

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How two presidencies—half a century apart—can be used to explain the unprecedented hostility towards the press today.


The United States has long had a tumultuous relationship with the media; since the very Declaration of Independence, presidents have long understood the press to be both a tool for their success as well as the means to their undoing. The media has undergone a familiar and at times cyclical rapport with the executive branch. From the first era of the partisan press, whereby newspapers were political proxies for candidates to criticize their opposition under pseudonyms, past the era of sensationalist yellow journalism, all the way to the death of ‘He Said She Said’ journalism, the evolution between the presidency and the media has had an unquestionable impact on society’s attitudes towards the latter. Nonetheless, freedom of the press has been one of the main pillars of American democracy embedded in the first amendment, going so far as to trump presidential orders in favor of the right to publish. Indeed, the strong positive correlation between hostility towards the press and scandal-plagued administrations are, to some extent, indicative of the dynamic between presidential candidates and the journalists who—in many ways—hold them more accountable than other federal institutions. We find ourselves now, however, in an unprecedentedly hostile exchange between the media and the presidency, with President Trump labeling the “fake news” as “the enemy of the people,” inciting more hatred and in some cases physical violence towards news organizations. In order to fully understand the evolution that has led to the present dynamic, we must first analyze a similar historical period in U.S. history: the presidency of Richard Nixon. First, the civil unrest that has characterized both of these periods, along with the two greatest political scandals in U.S. history that each president was at the core of—Watergate and Russian collusion—shed light on the relationship between the executive and the media. Secondly, it is crucial to understand how this relationship in turn affects that of the public with the media itself, and how it has evolved throughout time to its current predicament. Lastly, so that one may accurately analyze the state of the news media as it relates not only to the presidency but to the general time period, we must take into account the essential differences between both political contexts, media advancements, and both presidents as individuals that have led to the critical situation the U.S. finds itself in today.

The 1960s were as significant politically as they were culturally: following the Civil Rights act, Southern Democrats motivated by racial prejudice were drawn into the Republican party, an event that marked the beginning of ideology as a strong partisan force. This triggered a cascade of social movements, including second-wave feminism, the gay liberation movement, and the liberal anti-imperialist youth movement decrying the Vietnam war. Indeed, the illusion of the American consensus era that thrived throughout the 1950s was shattered by the mass enfranchisement of African Americans and other minorities. What had largely been a division of parties based on economic and foreign policy had effectively developed into a schism of ideological sorting over the next few decades: conservatives and liberals were finding a hub within the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. When analyzing U.S. general election map data, what was a consistent blue in the south suddenly shifted to red in 1964 and further more in 1968[1], the year Nixon was elected. Indeed, in cyclical tradition, the very same cultural struggles that originally divided Americans have largely resurfaced under different names and purposes: the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, Trans Rights, Abolish ICE, and more. One new element that has increasingly become a partisan motivator is, in fact, the media. The rampant insertion of ideology in political party platforms, including the progressive inclusion of the highly conservative Tea Party into the Republican sphere, morphed the red party from a traditionally business-oriented and strong-defense promoting group to an anti-government, anti-media, faith-based, abortion-banning crusade. Meanwhile, the Democratic party had become the de-facto hub for minorities, liberal elites—comprising a majority of the media—and the youth. These social contexts are crucial to understanding the role of the media throughout both presidencies. Not only did each man capitalize on the social divisions of the nation by spouting a narrative of re-establishing “law and order,” but both were involved in two of the most scandalous investigations in American history: Watergate, and Russian collusion. Throughout each troubling development in either case, the media’s responsibility is to report on and inform the electorate, which inherently receives backlash from both presidents at the core of the potential charges, but also from another unlikely audience: the American electorate. Data published in the Social Science Quarterly in 1979 revealed that Nixon voters were not only significantly less trusting of government after Watergate, but the event produced more negative attitudes toward the mass media, with a poll showing just 20 percent of Nixon voters had faith in press journalism in 1973[2]. Similarly, a March 2017 poll conducted by Quinnipac University found that 86 percent of Republicans trusted President Trump over the media, and a slight majority of Republicans found the news media to be an “enemy of the people” over “an important part of democracy.”[3] This clear partisan divide has its roots in Nixon’s Watergate scandal, an event that took place mid ideological party-sorting, after which media became seen as liberally biased. The fact that an overwhelming majority of journalists consider themselves to be Democrats has further fueled this growing attitude: in a 2016 analysis conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, out of 430 journalists, 96 percent donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign[4]. Though journalists have continuously maintained their necessary objectivity in political matters, it has itself played a significant role in the polarization of the United States electorate, both through its selective coverage and its increasingly partisan echo chambers on both sides.

One could argue that the Watergate scandal was, in a certain sense, at the origin of the partisan distrust Americans have towards the media today for several reasons. Conservatives already held a high level of disdain towards journalists in the 1960s due their coverage of the Vietnam war, most notably the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in the landmark 1971 case, The New York Times vs. The United States. This unprecedented act of press victory over the Establishment triggered an antagonistic relationship between Nixon and the media that would intensify throughout the Watergate investigation. Even as far back as 1962, Nixon’s concession speech for Governor of California ended with the statement, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,”[5] referring to the press or “the unelected elite”[6] as Nixon and Vice President Agnew called them—a similar rhetoric used by President Trump by victimizing himself as well as using the exonym “the elite” to incite anger among his working-class base. In fact, according to The Making of the President 196, Nixon believed the press was conspiring against him long before his campaign run[7]. Even though by the 1972 Watergate break-in only 14 out of the 2200 members of the Washington press corps were reporting on the event[8], Nixon immediately began to berate the press as “out to get him.” In a 1973 press conference, Nixon’s reply to a correspondent’s inquiry as to whether he viewed the lack of confidence in his leadership as a problem went as follows: “It’s rather difficult to have the President of the United States…by innuendo, by leak, by, frankly, leers and sneers of commentators attacked in every way without having some of that confidence being worn away.”[9] The blame as to the lack of trust in his leadership, therefore, was not placed on his potential implication in the Watergate scandal, but rather in the press’ coverage. Nixon planted the seeds of distrust towards the media that we now see today: an essential democratic institution was a widespread conspiracy to oust him from power. In other words, what President Trump calls “the fake news media” in an attempt to discredit any fact-based claims against his actions. Similarly, Nixon’s attempts to silence the press in 1972 by threats from the Administration—his constant verbal attacks and the Justice Department’s prosecution of reporters who refused to give up their sources—have influenced Trump’s playbook. He has kept an enemy list, much like Nixon did at the time of Watergate, of all the U.S. officials who participated in the Russia investigation, firing the head of the FBI, James Comey, the Attorney General who recused himself from the matter, Jeff Sessions, along with an unprecedented number of his administration staff over the past two years. His constant tweets demonizing specific news organizations like CNN or The New York Times, who recently published an anonymous Op-Ed from a “high level official in the administration” that Trump labeled as “Treason,” reveal a pattern of hostility and struggle between presidents covertly abusing their power and the institution set up to reveal these acts.

 Many have argued that the Watergate scandal launched the press into a golden era of respect and credibility, including the editor of The Washington Post at the time, Benjamin Bradlee: “It is wonderfully ironical that a man who so disliked — and never understood — the press did so much to further the reputation of the press,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir[10]. “In his darkest hour, he gave the press its finest hour.” However, one could easily argue the very opposite. Due to the reporters’ anonymous sources—including the notorious Deepthroat, later named as Mark Felt, Associate Director of the FBI—conservatives’ preconceived judgments about a media liberal bias became solidified. One could argue that in many ways, the latest Republican administrations (2000 and 2016) were shaped by this generational political context: each candidate became politically socialized at a time where the government was essentially overhauled by the media, determined to reverse this power play over the following decades. But the resentment was not just confined to politicians—in fact, in a surprising turn of events, the public’s perception of the press during and after Watergate progressively began to deteriorate due to their very coverage of presidential scandals. A perfect example of this would be the way the press covered the Monica Lewinski scandal during Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1998. According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press (PRCPP), Clinton’s approval rating following the breaking news in January went down to 52 percent. However, once every media outlet in the United States began to cover all angles of the story, support for Clinton rose back up to 62 percent. Unprompted, respondents claimed their opinion had changed due to the media “being unfair to him.”[11] The then-director of the PRCPP explained his view of the results: “The public values the watchdog role of the press, but not as much as it once did,” Andrew Kohut once said, “[The Public] came to see the press as a watchdog that barked too much, and sometimes was out of control.”[12] According to historian Alan Brinkley from Columbia University, “[Watergate] created a model of journalism that is easily abused and debased,[13]” he said, “It created generations of people trying to replicate that role by digging in more and more unsavory ways.”

 The current animosity towards the news media, however, cannot be solely attributed to this relative increase in public distrust since the 1970s. In fact, several studies show that hostility towards the current media is not only higher than it has ever been in American history but is now also—like most sociocultural issues—divided even more strongly along party lines, as mentioned earlier. In order to accurately explain the escalated enmity towards the press since the Nixon presidency and the Watergate scandal, it is essential to analyze the substantial differences in the media and political context of the present day. Unlike Nixon, Trump has continuously exhibited the demagoguery of authoritarian figures, several experts have said. According to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor specializing in fascism at New York University, Trump’s attempt to interfere in the midterm election results of both Arizona and Florida; “Just out — in Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH. Electoral corruption – Call for a new Election?” he tweeted on November 9, are a classic dictatorial measure to induce a questioning of actuality. “The authoritarian wants us to lose our faith in our ears and our eyes, what we read and what we observe, so that we can be more dependent on him,” she told The Guardian[14]. This is once again exemplified through his persistent decrial of the media as “fake news,” leaving his constituents to rely on his personal accounts of reality. Additionally, Trump’s blatantly racist rhetoric contrasts to Nixon’s calculated use of innuendo like “silent majority,” “states’ rights,” or “colorblind,” to address segregation. Calling for a Muslim ban during his campaign, labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, Trump has effectively managed to spout hate speech under the guise of rejecting political correctness. “The president is tripling down on a very frightening politics that takes honest voters in rural areas and gives them a kind of panic and fear over nonexistent threats. What’s he’s doing is creating ever-more-dedicated supporters. And he’s giving them a kind of existential dread of otherness,” says Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor, in his 2018 book How Fascism Works: the Politics of Us and Them[15].

But unlike authoritative figures, his blatant display of erratic behavior, personal opinions, and questionable legal tactics have not been kept under wraps through clandestine tricks and inner networks. In fact, Trump has changed the rulebook by publicly tweeting statements that would have, in any other administration, been deemed obstruction of justice or unfitness for the presidency. “Are Trump’s tweets admissible evidence of witness tampering? Yes. Period,” Michigan law professor Samuel Gross told Vox[16] after a tweet by Trump praising his advisor Roger Stone for not testifying against him. “Would they be enough to convict a president who lies and cheats in plain view every week of the year, about matters small and huge, and gets away with it? Who knows?” he added. Indeed, Trump’s openness with his thoughts and measures has confounded an establishment unaccustomed to this means of expression, therefore normalizing and passively condoning what would otherwise be considered illegal behavior.

However, Trump’s unusual demagoguery is not what most distinguishes this context from Nixon’s, but rather the means to his demagoguery. Had it not been for social media platforms and incomparable technological advances made throughout the 21st century, it is quite impossible to gauge whether Trump’s current influence would much more strongly resemble Nixon’s. Indeed, the launch of Twitter has given the president unprecedented use of personal discretion to disseminate any kind of message to the American people. Whereas before, politicians’ discourse was filtered and fact-checked through the mainstream media, this new megaphone provides a direct communication to his avid fan base. Consequently, Trump’s ability to share his “politically incorrect” thoughts at all times through Twitter and Facebook have given him a 24-hour control of the news cycle, sending the media into a frenzy of coverage and delayed analysis that falls silent on most of his supporters’ ears. Once said reporting and publishing is done, Donald Trump is able to promptly dismiss the information and further vilify the specific news institutions that prove his statements as false. As a result, the offices of CNN had to be evacuated twice over the span of two months due to a mailed pipe bomb on October 24 and a second threat on December 7.

But social media and heightened demagoguery are not the only two factors that have drastically damaged the public opinion on the press since Nixon’s presidency. Arguably, the biggest threat to news media is the news media itself. Though certain American institutions designed to be neutral for the good of the people—the Supreme Court, and less officially, the news media (though not on the same scale)—an underlying partisanship is implicitly understood to exist. However, the press during Nixon’s presidency was in relative unison. “In the 1970s, if you watched the CBS or NBC and ABC newscast, there would be some variation on the stories they covered and what they emphasize… But they agreed mostly on what was happening,”[17] says Jon Marshall, author of Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse. Trump, on the other hand, has a layer of defense that Nixon never did: a conservative news ecosystem. Outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, and others have at the core of their current platform to reject arguments made against Trump, specifically undermining Robert Mueller’s investigation and the opposition. In fact, despite Trump’s unprecedented number of personal, political, and social controversies that would be undoubtedly raged against were he a Democrat—based on the conservative news sources’ prior standards—these media continue to defend the Republican politician, in no small part due to the earlier mention of ideological resentment developed by the party over the past decades. Since the introduction of smartphones with round-the-clock access to the internet, the overwhelming flow of information has made American citizens highly selective as to their news sources, creating a cycle of confirmation-biased knowledge and echo chambers, both in more liberal as well as conservative outlets. This behavior was in part responsible for the election of Donald Trump in the first place. Liberal news outlets out of touch with Southern, Midwestern, and otherwise rural areas severely underestimated the power and influence of Donald Trump—the more they ridiculed and undermined him, the more pull he gained across the country from rural Americans that agreed with his sentiments. Furthermore, the technological enhancement in the dissemination of the media has created a warped set of values that prioritize the speed of information as opposed to the quality: Whoever reports it first wins. As a result, Trump’s 2015 and 2016 campaign was covered in a way no other election has ever been before due to the outlandishness of his character and the spectacle of his rallies, which increased ratings. Every single word, action, and event he attended was broadcast and reported across every major media outlet, ultimately backfiring by unwittingly giving Trump the largest platform of any candidate before, allowing him to reach millions of more Americans that did not usually follow elections or vote, and with whom his messages resonated deeply.

The state of the news media in the United States is in a crisis that originated decades ago, fueled by partisanship, demagoguery, an exacerbated ideological culture war, and an inability on behalf of the press itself to cohesively define its role amid the rapidly advancing technological revolution. As we can see, comparing and contrasting Richard Nixon and Donald Trump’s presidencies is crucial to understanding the media’s current prerogative in America and its struggle with public opinion. Both individuals exhibit some of the same personality traits, share a significantly similar sociocultural context that each capitalized on during their presidency, and were both at the heart of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history. These similarities allow us to understand which elements of the executive branch contribute to a hostile media, all the while enlightening us as to how this relationship has evolved throughout time and will likely continue to do so in a similar direction. In further analyzing the differences in media technology, polarization, and each president’s dissimilar personality traits along with rhetoric, we can see how the current calamity was, in many ways, unavoidable: Trump was not the result of ideological warfare, but rather the product of it, propelled to the highest office of the land by the very forces that sought to ridicule him in an era where news ratings are prioritized and echo chambers continue to polarize. The responsibility—if still possible—to mend the relationship between the government, the media, and the public, lies not with just one but rather all of these.


  • Bradlee, Ben. “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures.” A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, Simon & Schuster, 1995, p. xix.
  • Bump, Philip. “Three-Quarters of Republicans Trust Trump over the Media.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 July 2018,
  • Eidenmuller, Michael E. Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century – American Rhetoric,
  • Harris, Richard. “Nixon vs. the Media.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 18 June 2017,
  • “Historical Presidential Elections.” Split Electoral Votes in Maine and Nebraska,
  • “Journalists Shower Hillary Clinton with Campaign Cash – Center for Public Integrity.” Center for Public Integrity, 16 Oct. 2015,
  • KORNBLUT, ANNE E. “The News Media Is Still Recovering From Watergate.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 June 2005,
  • Maza, Carlos. “The Big Problem with Comparing Nixon to Trump.”, Vox Media, 14 May 2018,
  • McCarthy, Tom. “Is Donald Trump an Authoritarian? Experts Examine Telltale Signs.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Nov. 2018,
  • Nixon, Richard. “55 Years Ago — ‘The Last Press Conference.’” Richard Nixon Foundation, 27 Nov. 2017,
  • Robinson, Tom. “Chapter 6: Media as a Watchdog .” The Evolution of News Reporting , ABDO, 2010, p. 62.
  • White, Theodore H. The Making of the President, 1960. HarperPerennial, 2010.
  • Zelizer, Julian E. “Will Richard Nixon’s Three-Pronged Defense Work for Trump?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Dec. 2017,
  • Zimmer, Troy A. “THE IMPACT OF WATERGATE ON THE PUBLIC’S TRUST IN PEOPLE AND CONFIDENCE IN THE MASS MEDIA.” Social Science Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 4, Mar. 1979, pp. 743–751.

[1] “Historical Presidential Elections.” Split Electoral Votes in Maine and Nebraska,

[2] Zimmer, Troy A. “THE IMPACT OF WATERGATE ON THE PUBLIC’S TRUST IN PEOPLE AND CONFIDENCE IN THE MASS MEDIA.” Social Science Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 4, Mar. 1979, pp. 743–751.

[3] Bump, Philip. “Three-Quarters of Republicans Trust Trump over the Media.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 July 2018,

[4] “Journalists Shower Hillary Clinton with Campaign Cash – Center for Public Integrity.” Center for Public Integrity, 16 Oct. 2015, 

[5] Nixon, Richard. “55 Years Ago — ‘The Last Press Conference.’” Richard Nixon Foundation, 27 Nov. 2017,

[6] Eidenmuller, Michael E. Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century – American Rhetoric,

[7]  White, Theodore H. The Making of the President, 1960. HarperPerennial, 2010.

[8] Harris, Richard. “Nixon vs. the Media.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 18 June 2017,

[9] Zelizer, Julian E. “Will Richard Nixon’s Three-Pronged Defense Work for Trump?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Dec. 2017,

[10] Bradlee, Ben. “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures.” A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, Simon & Schuster, 1995, p. xix.

[11] KORNBLUT, ANNE E. “The News Media Is Still Recovering From Watergate.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 June 2005,

[12] Robinson, Tom. “Chapter 6: Media as a Watchdog .” The Evolution of News Reporting , ABDO, 2010, p. 62.

[13] KORNBLUT, ANNE E. “The News Media Is Still Recovering From Watergate.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 June 2005,

[14] McCarthy, Tom. “Is Donald Trump an Authoritarian? Experts Examine Telltale Signs.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Nov. 2018,

[15] McCarthy, Tom. “Is Donald Trump an Authoritarian? Experts Examine Telltale Signs.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Nov. 2018,

[16] Maza, Carlos. “The Big Problem with Comparing Nixon to Trump.”, Vox Media, 14 May 2018,

[17] Maza, Carlos. “The Big Problem with Comparing Nixon to Trump.”, Vox Media, 14 May 2018,

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