We’re seeing a pretty brutal decline in people’s trust in institutions. How do we break out of that?
Again, this is a global issue. The sentiment about the EU in Europe. Look at Brexit. The mistrust is intensified by the temptation for politicians to take advantage of it. The basic premise is that these institutions are rigged for the advantage of those who are already advantaged. They’re corrupt. And that view is a very dangerous thing.
Here in America, there’s a real question about the extent of the rule of law, freedom of the press, the kinds of issues that we sort of took for granted in the past. It is really disquieting. We are at a place that we wouldn’t have imagined even five or 10 years ago. And it’s fueled by fundamental cynicism about institutions and their ability to deal fairly with the wider population. People are feeling shut out.
Earlier I mentioned cultural issues. This sense of cultural loss is very much at the center of what’s going on as well. In 2016, Donald Trump got 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in this country. That’s a quarter of the vote. He lost everyone else 60 percent to 37 percent. What motivates his base are cultural issues. In addition, there are economic issues. But there too, there’s this sense of these elite forces conspiring against his base and taking things away from them. So this sense of loss, both cultural and economic, is big. And it’s aimed at all institutions, which are viewed as corrupt and self-interested.
How much of a role do changes in the media landscape play and how might the media be part of a better path?
One of the things that we’re grappling with globally is whether we can all agree on a set of facts. It’s hard to solve problems if you don’t agree that they exist. Climate change is a great example. If we don’t even agree that it’s a problem, it’s going to be very hard to solve.
The most telling exchange of the early Trump administration was when [senior counselor to President Trump] Kellyanne Conway was asked about some of the things the President said about how he actually had won the popular vote even though he had lost by 3 million votes, and about the size of the crowd at the inauguration. The reporter said, these are just facts, and Conway said, “Well, he has alternative facts.” [Laughter]
When I started in this business a long time ago, we had basically one national conversation. There were three networks and thriving local news operations. But everybody seemed to be having one conversation. Competitive pressures have changed that.
The news business is a business. It’s a trust and a business. You want to operate as a trust and with integrity. But you also need to get people to watch your programming. So things sometimes get hyped out of proportion. In addition, Trump has set up a situation where if you criticize him, or if your reporting is unflattering, he dismisses it as a political thing. And that adds to a sense of cynicism.
If we lose the ability to agree on certain facts and then discuss them rationally, and if governments escape scrutiny, that’s dangerous. [US Supreme Court] Justice Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” If we develop an immunity to sunlight as a disinfectant, that is a corrosive thing for democracy.