NBC Nightly News control room. Photo by Jeff Maurone via Wikimedia Commons
NBC Nightly News control room. Photo by Jeff Maurone via Wikimedia Commons

By Mark Grabowski

There’s a long held media maxim that a journalist’s most valuable asset is reputation. After this election, many media outlets may have to file for bankruptcy due to their lacking reputations.

Americans’ confidence in the media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” is at an all-time low. Only 32 percent trust them, a September Gallup poll found. Pollsters blame “lower standards for journalism” in presidential campaign coverage for “corroding Americans’ trust and confidence.”

One big reason for the decline is media bias. A majority of likely voters say journalists are biased against Donald Trump, an Oct. 19 Quinnipiac University poll found. While the perception of bias depends upon one’s party, it’s telling that 60 percent of independent voters believe the media is anti-Trump.

Journalists deny this, of course. Soon after Gallup’s poll, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi ranted in a column “To: Everyone: … I know a lot of you don’t like [us] … Please stop calling us ‘the media.’ It’s an invention, a tool, an all-purpose smear by people who can’t be bothered to make distinctions.”

True, the media aren’t a monolith. Reporting standards differ widely across the media. The digital media revolution over the past 30 years has given rise to cable and online media outlets that carve a niche by catering to partisan audiences. Many are staffed by journalists who are more pundits than reporters. Anyone can start a blog and call himself a journalist these days.

Mark Grabowski

But the legacy media have remained the big leagues of journalism because they’ve long held higher standards. Print, radio and TV media have appealed to a general audience by covering news objectively. To achieve this reputation, their reporters adhere to ethical customs, such as sticking to the facts, verifying information and not taking sides — even when covering a hostile subject like Trump.

It wasn’t always this way. America’s early press was largely operated by political parties who mixed news and opinions indiscriminately. That changed in the early 20th century, with an outcry against “yellow journalism” and demand for greater truthfulness and accountability.

Journalists saw their work as a profession with a responsibility to the public. Media outlets adopted codes of ethics, which included prohibitions against political campaign contributions. This impartiality transformed journalism into the Fourth Estate: referees of politics’ playing field who didn’t root for Team Blue or Team Red.

Many journalists continue to adhere to these standards. But a noticeable number of reporters and outlets have abandoned that practice while covering this election, hurting the entire profession’s reputation. Contrary to Farhi’s claim, there’s more than “anecdotal evidence” of “liberal bias.”

A recent Center for Public Integrity study revealed 480 reporters and editors contributed to either presidential campaign, with 90 percent donating to Hillary Clinton. Journalists at The New York Times and other legacy outlets contributed, despite newsroom policies forbidding it.

Granted, it’s possible for journalists to cover stories fairly despite having biases. But this election many haven’t even tried to.

Consider The Times, whose Aug. 8 cover story called on reporters who believe Trump is a “dangerous” “demagogue” to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century” even though “it may not always seem fair.”

Many journalists apparently took that to heart. A recent WikiLeaks release of hacked emails revealed dozens of reporters, including several at The Times and major TV news networks, coordinated with Clinton’s campaign to provide positive coverage.

It showed in their stories. For example, a content analysis of last week’s coverage of Clinton’s email scandal found overwhelming evidence that TV journalists spun it in Clinton’s favor. Media Research Center, a right-leaning media watchdog group, found ABC, NBC and CBS negatively reported on the FBI director instead of Clinton “by a ratio of almost 3 to 1.”

In a sense, Trump’s right that the election is “rigged.” Not by voter fraud, but by some journalists nixing neutrality and serving as Clinton’s propaganda machine.

Which isn’t to say Trump deserves to win. There are many reasons why the Republican real estate mogul — who has filed for multiple bankruptcies, proposed controversial policies and spoken countless vulgarities — might lose.

But the ultimate loser might be the media. Experts say recent setbacks suggest the press is already paying a steep price for its declining reputation.

The Times announced this week quarterly profits dropped by 96 percent. Two weeks earlier, the Raleigh News & Observer lost a libel case and must fork over $6 million. Columbia Journalism Review said it’s “evidence that the growing unpopularity of media may translate into less-sympathetic jury pools.”

In their quest to beat Trump, it seems the media has become just like him: unprofessional, bankrupt and despised.

Mark Grabowski is a lawyer and teaches communications law at National University in San Diego.