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President Donald Trump rebukes CNN reporter Jim Acosta during a news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 7, 2018. Bloomberg photo Al Drago.
President Donald Trump rebukes CNN reporter Jim Acosta during a news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 7, 2018. Bloomberg photo Al Drago. (Al Drago)

The divide is widening. The gulf is deepening. What media outlet you trust is more and more a matter of your ideology. And as hard as it might be to admit, it looks like President Trump is enjoying some success with his scorched-earth campaigns against such mainstream media giants as The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN.

Those are some of the darker conclusions I came to after going inside the numbers on a study released Friday by the non-partisan Pew Research Center titled “U.S. Media and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided.”

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Data showing how polarized we are might not seem like news to some, but Pew’s evidence of erosion in trust in institutions that practice fact-based journalism is troubling to me, especially when it can be linked to the president’s war on truth. And the erosion is not only with the hardcore Trump base. According to this study, it also involves Republican-leaning independents.

“As the U.S. enters a heated 2020 presidential election year, a new Pew Research Center report finds that Republicans and Democrats place their trust in two nearly inverse news media environments,” the study states.

“Moreover, evidence suggests that partisan polarization in the use and trust of media sources has widened in the past five years. A comparison to a similar study by the center of web-using U.S. adults in 2014 finds that Republicans have grown increasingly alienated from most of the more established sources, while Democrats’ confidence in them remains stable, and in some cases, has strengthened," the report concludes.

I tried to find something hopeful in the suggestion that while some Republicans have turned away from the pillars of fact-based journalism in the Trump era, some Democrats have come to embrace those outlets more than ever. That’s at least a wash, right?

Not exactly when you track the differences in levels of distrust found in a 2014 Pew study versus this one, which was conducted in October and November 2019.

“Most of the movement over these five years has come from Republicans and Republican-leaning independents increasing their distrust of many of the more traditional outlets tied to legacy platforms like network TV and print newspapers,” the report says.

For example, distrust of CNN among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents rose from 33% in 2014 to 58% today. That loss of 25 percentage points is among the largest of any included in the report. CNN has been the primary target of Trump’s “fake news” attacks.

For the Washington Post, the percentage of distrust increased from 22% to 39%. Distrust of The New York Times went from 29% to 42% during the last five years. Two more of the president’s favorite targets.

“Among those that have seen the largest erosion are those decried by President Trump,” is the way the report makes the connection between Trump’s attacks and the loss of confidence among Republicans in the three news sites.

The study also cited a previous Pew report that found "within the Republican Party, approval of Donald Trump aligns with much greater animosity toward news organizations and journalists.”

There was essentially nothing like the increase in distrust among Republicans on the Democratic side, which was described in the report as “remarkably stable” across the five years.

“One exception is the Sean Hannity radio show, where distrust among Democrats increased moderately from 32 to 38%" for the daily radio show hosted by the prime-time star of Fox News, the report said.

It also noted that distrust of Breitbart News jumped from 7% to 36%, but pointed out that the percentage of increase could have been skewed by the fact that in 2014 only 10% of the Democrats interviewed had heard of Breitbart compared to 42% now.

That is likely the most important factor. But based on my observation, Breitbart has gone all in with Trump is recent years, slamming his detractors and opponents, while wildly praising the president and his allies. A Breitbart headline emailed this week referred to U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chief floor manager prosecuting Trump in the Senate impeachment trial, as “Pencil Neck.” Such partisan rhetoric could also be driving some of that distrust among Democrats who have actually consumed Breitbart content.

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Under the heading “The Fox News phenomenon,” the report says, “In the more compact Republican media ecosystem, one outlet towers above all others: Fox News. It would be hard to overstate its connection as a trusted go-to source of political news for Republicans. About two-thirds (65%) of Republicans and Republican leaners say they trust Fox News as a source. Additionally, 60% say they got political or election news there in the past week.”

The report shows CNN as the inverse go-to site for Democrats and independents leaning toward the left.

“Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, CNN (67%) is about as trusted a source of information as Fox News is among Republicans,” Pew says. “The cable network is also Democrats’ most commonly turned to source for political and election news, with about half (53%) saying they got news there in the past week. The big difference is that while no other source comes close to rivaling Fox News’ appeal to Republicans, a number of sources other than CNN are also highly trusted and frequently used by Democrats.”

Those sources are: NBC News (61%), ABC News (60%), CBS News (59%), PBS (56%), New York Times (53%), BBC (48%), MSNBC (48%), Washington Post (47%), and NPR and Time magazine (46%).

Enhancing the credibility of the Pew findings for me is the way they sync up with a Gallup survey from 2019 examining overall trust in mass media among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. That report showed only 15% of Republicans trusting mass media, one point up from the all time low of 14% following the 2016 election, which featured daily assaults by Trump on legacy news operations like CNN and the Times.

“Republicans became increasingly mistrustful of the media in 2016 when Trump was campaigning for president and was sharply critical of the media’s coverage of him," the Gallup report says.

Meanwhile, trust among Democrats was at 69% in 2019. Two Americas, for sure.

“Americans’ trust in the media has been eroding over time, but in the current highly polarized climate, the views of political partisans have become increasingly divergent,” according to Gallup. “President Donald Trump’s description of the media as ‘the enemy of the people’ has undoubtedly colored the views of all Americans."

How low will trust go among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents during the 2020 campaign? As president, Trump has far more weapons today with which to attack mainstream journalistic outlets than he did as a candidate.

Beyond his vast arsenal of White House communications tools, the loyalty of the number one cable news channel in Fox News and radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, the president now has podcasters like former Breitbart chairman and Trump strategist Steve Bannon, along with what the Washington Post described as a “loyal army” of regional talk show hosts, pumping out his messages on an hourly basis.

Furthermore, there are new cable channels like OAN (One America News Network) even more slavishly devoted to the president and his re-election than Fox News and Fox Business. And what about that gang of social media operatives known for faked videos and far-right views that the president invited to the White House in July? His message to them: Do your thing in the 2020 election; I’ve got your back.

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And that only starts to describe what fact-based journalism is going to be up against in this election.

Like I said, I tried to find something hopeful in the latest news from Pew.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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