This is different from a lie—willfully misleading people, usually to manipulate them to your own ends. Mistakes born of carelessness can be worthy of condemnation, but it’s another thing to accuse a person of willfully misrepresenting a situation. Some people and some institutions have failed to faithfully pursue the truth—have lied and misled. This tends to be punished severely within the profession.
(Though of course famous men have often failed upwards or been given generous second chances; for instance, Brian Williams, who admitted to exaggerating a story about reporting in a combat zone. While he is still gainfully employed, his credibility will never recover in many circles. Simply because a person is not jobless and penniless does not mean they have gone unpunished.)
When Trump claims that “the media” is a group of dishonest people, he is rather arbitrarily lumping together his critics as corrupt. When there is no check on power, a government can lie with impunity. I think it’s worth examining what we mean by “the media.” It’s worth being judicious about making sweeping claims that enable a divisive narrative.
To me it makes no more sense to refer to “the media” than to “the politicians” or “the government” or “the sports” or maybe “the athletes.” It’s not that broad terms like this are meaningless, but they confuse the point. They make it easy to write off entire institutions; to divide and polarize people broadly. If you start talking to a guy at the park and he says something like “those rat bastard politicians in Washington,” it’s pretty easy to predict the conversation’s level of nuance.
Of course, sometimes things can be said of all politicians, all doctors, or all journalists—“doctors go to medical school,” for example—but not often. The guy at the park who thinks politicians are all liars is most likely disgusted with certain things that certain people have said and done. But the logical end does not seem to be spurning the entire idea of elected officials—rejecting any iteration of the government, and to see the country as divided between people who love all aspects of government and people who hate it.
Interrogating the meaning of “the media” has become more important in recent months, as no American president has tried so aggressively to discredit all journalists. This sort of wholesale antagonism can only occur in a world that is drastically oversimplified into binaries. If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t “hate the media” or “love the media,” but see it as the complex professional-commercial-personal-political ecosystem that it is. Making sweeping claims about “the media” jumbles up journalists with infotainment and partisan pundits and advocates.
Many of us see the absurdity in that type of overgeneralization, and yet we contribute to it, with every mention of “the media” as if it were some monolithic entity. That sort of usage enables the painting of this monolithic entity as either corrupt or not, trustworthy or not. It further jeopardizes what little trust remains in the profession that exists only to convey truth. The profession that grows more necessary by the day.
* This article originally misattributed the results of a Gallup poll to Pew Research Center. We regret the error.