What Happens When Everyone Loses Credibility

It’s not just Trump. Democrats have become blindingly partisan, and respected news outlets are publishing stories that are in direct conflict.

A protester holds up a sign outside the Justice Department in Washington on Thursday during a demonstration against Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
March 3, 2017, 1:28 p.m.

We’re at a unique his­tor­ic­al mo­ment when trust in our pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions is at all-time lows. The Trump White House lost its cred­ib­il­ity with the pub­lic from the first full day of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, when the pres­id­ent sent out spokes­man Sean Spicer to lie about the in­aug­ur­a­tion crowd size. From the scope of his Elect­or­al Col­lege vic­tory to claims that the murder rate is at all-time highs, the pres­id­ent him­self has been re­spons­ible for mis­lead­ing Amer­ic­ans with glar­ing false­hoods. Con­sequently, any­thing that comes out of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mouth is treated with deep skep­ti­cism.

Demo­crats, in their zeal to dis­cred­it the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, have be­come so par­tis­an that it’s of­ten hard to take their op­pos­i­tion ser­i­ously. One ex­ample: A re­cent New York Times story re­vealed the in­ter­ming­ling of in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing and polit­ics in the wan­ing weeks of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, with of­fi­cials scram­bling to pre­serve in­form­a­tion of any con­tacts between Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials and Rus­si­an rep­res­ent­at­ives. Per­haps the rush to pre­serve in­tel­li­gence was con­duc­ted for only the most pat­ri­ot­ic, high-minded reas­ons. But it’s aw­fully telling that the flurry of anti-Rus­sia activ­ity oc­curred after Trump won the pres­id­ency—and long after Rus­sia had been med­dling in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. In­deed, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion dragged its feet in con­front­ing Rus­sia over hack­ing, much to the Clin­ton cam­paign’s con­sterna­tion. As NBC News re­port­er Ken Dilani­an tweeted, in a re­sponse to Obama for­eign policy sherpa Ben Rhodes: “What if all those [Obama] people knew the ex­tent of Rus­si­an ef­forts be­fore the 2016 elec­tion and didn’t tell the pub­lic.”

Even the much-ma­ligned main­stream me­dia has, at times, heightened con­fu­sion about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions. The cov­er­age of the Ye­men raid is a tell­tale ex­ample of how it’s in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out what to be­lieve these days—even stor­ies by the na­tion’s most re­spec­ted of news or­gan­iz­a­tions. On Wed­nes­day, NBC News re­por­ted that 10 un­named cur­rent of­fi­cials said no vi­tal in­tel­li­gence was gathered from last month’s raid. One day later, CNN’s Bar­bara Starr re­por­ted that the raid led of­fi­cials to identi­fy dozens of con­tacts with ties to al-Qaida, cit­ing sev­er­al Pentagon of­fi­cials. Mean­while, Trump him­self quoted De­fense Sec­ret­ary James Mat­tis in his State of the Uni­on that fallen Navy SEAL Ry­an Owens “was a part of a highly suc­cess­ful raid that gen­er­ated large amounts of vi­tal in­tel­li­gence that will lead to many more vic­tor­ies in the fu­ture against our en­emies.” Even the most savvy news con­sumer has no idea what to be­lieve.

This is the con­sequence of run­away polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion: Trump can ob­fus­cate with aban­don, without any con­sequences from his base. Demo­crats want to dis­cred­it the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion any way pos­sible, even when it means ove­rhyp­ing stor­ies to fit with a pre­con­ceived nar­rat­ive. (The sheer num­ber of Sen­ate Demo­crats call­ing for At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Jeff Ses­sions’s resig­na­tion, be­fore there’s any proof of mis­con­duct, is an ob­vi­ous ex­ample of this.) Mean­while, it’s harder to find truly non­par­tis­an of­fi­cials who don’t have at least a ves­ted in­terest in a cer­tain out­come. That makes it harder for re­port­ers to sep­ar­ate their sources’ in­form­a­tion from their polit­ic­al motives.

There’s no end to this cycle of mis­trust. It means news con­sumers need to di­gest what they hear from pub­lic of­fi­cials—and yes, even the me­dia—with a healthy de­gree of skep­ti­cism. And re­mem­ber that, even in an era of non­stop in­fotain­ment, it still takes time to un­cov­er the truth. Re­pub­lic­ans would be well-served by sup­port­ing bi­par­tis­an con­gres­sion­al in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to the Trump cam­paign’s con­nec­tions to Rus­sia—as many already have, un­der polit­ic­al pres­sure. Demo­crats would be smart not to call for im­peach­ment in re­ac­tion to every in­cre­ment­al news story that sur­faces. As for us in the me­dia, we need to present the news im­par­tially, without fear or fa­vor.


1. An un­der­re­por­ted find­ing from the NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll re­leased this week: More Amer­ic­ans be­lieve the coun­try is on the right track than any time since June 2009. The poll found that 40 per­cent of adults be­lieve the coun­try is headed in the right dir­ec­tion, while 51 per­cent think it’s go­ing in the wrong dir­ec­tion. This, des­pite Trump’s me­diocre 44 per­cent job ap­prov­al rat­ing in the same poll. (Im­me­di­ately after Obama’s reelec­tion in 2012, two NBC/WSJ polls found 41 per­cent of re­gistered voters say­ing things were on the right track, but more voters were neg­at­ive about the coun­try’s dir­ec­tion.)

It’s a sign that Trump’s policies are less prob­lem­at­ic than his un­pres­id­en­tial tem­pera­ment. Per­haps if the pres­id­ent stops tweet­ing in­cess­antly, avoids angry me­dia-bash­ing, and sticks to script more of­ten, his ap­prov­al rat­ings will start creep­ing up­wards.

2. Geor­gia’s spe­cial elec­tion is draw­ing out­sized at­ten­tion, but the race to re­place Ry­an Zinke in Montana could be just as com­pet­it­ive. Montana has tra­di­tion­ally been more fa­vor­able ter­rain for Demo­crats than Tom Price’s sub­urb­an At­lanta dis­trict. The state elec­ted Gov. Steve Bul­lock to its second term last Novem­ber, and its con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion fea­tures two-term Demo­crat­ic Sen. Jon Test­er.

But if you be­lieve that Pres­id­ent Trump re­ori­ented the polit­ic­al map, the Geor­gia seat would be more prom­ising. In 2012, Mitt Rom­ney won 55 per­cent of the vote in Montana, sig­ni­fic­antly lower than his 61 per­cent share in Geor­gia’s 6th Dis­trict. In 2016, the tables turned. Trump won 56 per­cent in Montana, while tal­ly­ing only 48 per­cent in Price’s dis­trict. The primary in Montana will oc­cur on May 25, just be­fore the ex­pec­ted June 20 run­off in Geor­gia.

So, in as­sess­ing which race could be in­ter­est­ing, it de­pends on wheth­er you be­lieve 2016 map marks our polit­ic­al fu­ture, or wheth­er the more-tra­di­tion­al par­tis­an break­downs of elec­tions past will pre­vail.

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