In the United States, the latest Gallup poll on public confidence in the mass media—newspapers, radio and TV—found that only 41 percent of Americans trust the media to report the news fully, fairly and accurately. This is in comparison to 32 percent in 2016, 54 percent in 2002, 72 percent in 1976 and 68 percent in 1972 (which was the first Gallup media poll).
While Democrats overwhelmingly trust the mass media (69 percent), Republicans’ trust is very low (15 percent), and Independents’ trust is relatively low (36 percent).
Moreover, according to Gallup, while trust in mass media is higher than trust in Congress (37 percent), it is lower than the trust in the military (91 percent), Supreme Court (78 percent), organized labor (74 percent) and the presidency (55 percent).
In Israel, the latest poll on Israeli public confidence in the media, published by the Israel Democracy Institute, documented a 36 percent trust in mass media, compared with 24 percent in 2016, 52 percent in 2011, 38 percent in 2008 and 51 percent in 2004.
While Israel’s left overwhelmingly trusts the mass media (64 percent), Israel’s right resoundingly does not (16 percent).
Furthermore, while confidence in Israel’s media is higher than confidence in Israel’s political parties (14 percent), and similar to the confidence in Israel’s executive and legislative branches (30 percent), it is substantially lower than the confidence in the Israel Defense Forces (90 percent; 41 percent among Israeli Arabs), the presidency (71 percent; 37 percent among Arabs), Supreme Court (55 percent; 56 percent among Arabs) and police force (44 percent; 38 percent among Israeli Arabs).
The left-right divergence of confidence in mass media highlights the intensifying political, ideological, social and cultural polarization that has afflicted both the United States and Israel.
In the United States, the left vs. right cultural war was reflected by the coverage of U.S. President Donald Trump’s July 4 speech at Mount Rushmore. While The New York Times (480,000 print circulation), Washington Post (255,000) and the Los Angeles Times (418,000) reported that “Trump uses Mt. Rushmore speech to deliver divisive culture war message” (NYT) and “At Mt. Rushmore, Trump exploits social divisions,” The Wall Street Journal (1 million print circulation) wrote that “Mr. Trump is trying to rally the country in defense of traditional American principles that are now under radical and unprecedented assault.”
In Israel, there is a similar divergence of opinion between the (opposing) coverage of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by Israel’s main TV and radio stations, as well as Yediot Achronot (the second-largest daily), on the one hand, and the (supportive) Israel Hayom (the largest daily) on the other.
The relatively low trust in the U.S. and Israeli mass media has also shed light on the limitations of the clout and accuracy of mass media. Also, with the advent of social media (including its facilitation of “fake news”), significantly fewer people consider mass media to be the fourth branch of government, the watchdog of democracy and a credible channel of information.
An increasing number of people consider mass media to be another player in the political arena.
For example, in 1948, the New York Times and Washington Post failed in their attempt—along with the State Department, Pentagon and CIA—to stop President Harry Truman from supporting the establishment of a Jewish state on the flawed grounds that a Jewish state would join the Soviet bloc, undermine U.S. ties with the Arab world and access to Arab oil, and would be resoundingly obliterated by the surrounding Arab military forces.
However, according to the February 2020 annual Gallup poll of foreign countries’ favorability, Israel enjoys a 74 percent favorable opinion in the United States, notwithstanding the 72-year systematic criticism of Israel by the U.S. “elite media.” The Palestinian Authority enjoys a meager 23 percent favorability, despite its embrace by the media. Contrary to the misperceptions put forth by the New York Times and Washington Post, Israel has become a unique force-multiplying ally of the United States, a battle-tested laboratory for the U.S. armed forces and defense industries, and a close partner in the research and development of world-class commercial and military technologies.
Mass media’s dramatic failings were exposed by the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which was determined in defiance of the media, exposing Americans’ distrust of it. Most of the U.S. mass media underestimated the constituency’s frustration with the political, media and academic establishment; misread the state of mind of major segments of the population—especially those residing outside the major urban centers—and severely underestimated Trump as a legitimate presidential candidate.
Israel’s media was stupefied by the outcome of the 1977 election, which ended the domination of Israel’s Labor Party and catapulted Likud to power. The media was rebutted by the Israeli constituency in most subsequent election cycles, including the February 2020 election.
Just like the U.S. mass media, Israel’s mass media has been challenged by the constituency—and gravely misperceived—on a number of the most critical national security issues. For instance, in defiance of most people, much of the mass media has glorified Israel’s retreat to the indefensible pre-1967 ceasefire lines, supported substantial concessions to the Palestinians, a giveaway of the Golan Heights and uprooting Jewish settlements. Also, the mass media welcomed the 2010 eruption of the “Arab Tsunami” as if it really were an “Arab Spring,” a “march of democracy,” and a “youth and Facebook revolution,” while in fact the Arab Tsunami is still disrupting the highly turbulent Middle East.
Will the U.S. and Israeli mass media resume their role as providers of credible information?
Will the media draw the proper lessons from the erosion of their stature in the eyes of their active and potential consumers?
Will the mass media refrain from their frequent habit of sacrificing frustrating and inconvenient reality on the altar of convenient and oversimplified scenarios?
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.
This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.