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Poll: Bloc of Michigan GOP voters sees media as 'enemy of the people'

President Donald Trump walks to an interview on the North Lawn of the White House, June 15, 2018, in Washington.

A bloc of Michigan voters see the media as dangerous to democracy, according to a poll released this week, an intensification of distrust that experts say is new and troubling.

State voters are reflecting a nationwide trend in which people are going to media sources that align with their own beliefs, a phenomenon that is escalating with the presidency of Donald Trump, media watchers say.

Most poll respondents disagreed with Trump that the media are the “enemy of the people,” but a majority of loyal Republicans and Fox News viewers agreed, according to a Sept. 5-7 poll of 600 likely Michigan voters conducted for The Detroit News and WDIV-TV. 

“Republicans and Democrats have been complaining about the media for as long as there’s been politics,” said pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group. Inc, which conducted the survey. “But at no time, at least not in my lifetime, do I remember anybody singling out the media as dangerous to democracy and having their voters agree with them.”

Asked about Trump’s repeated claim that the media are “the enemy of the people,” 30 percent of those polled said they agreed, compared with 64 percent who disagreed. The survey had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

But 52 percent of voters who said they lean Republican agreed with Trump’s comments about the media, and 66 percent of strong Republicans told pollsters they agree the media are an enemy.

"It’s a big mess,” said Stephen Lacy, a professor emeritus at Michigan State University who spent most of his career in the School of Journalism. “We have known for 80 years that people tend to access information that supports their position. That’s not new. What’s changed is that we have more outlets that pass off opinion for news.”

The trend of passing off opinion for news is more common among national news outlets, Lacy said, suggesting MSNBC as an example on the left and Fox News as an example on the right.

The Michigan poll results aligned with respondents' own media habits. Fifty-five percent of respondents who said Fox News is their primary source of news said they think the media are the enemy of the people, compared with 31 percent for consumers of local television, 5 percent for CNN or MSNBC, 27 percent for radio and 14.5 percent for newspapers.

“What you have is one network disproportionately influencing one segment of the voting population,” Czuba said.

Federal law enforcement officials said last month a man who repeatedly threatened violence against the Boston Globe newspaper echoed the president’s claim that the media are “the enemy of the people.”  

Trump first used the phrase in early 2017, suggesting in a tweet that “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

Poll: No internet regulation

The question of bias also has been raised about online technology.

Trump in August accused Google of manipulating its results for “Trump News” to show negative stories, a charge the company denied. Top economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the White House was “taking a look” at how and if search engines should be regulated.

The News poll showed most Michigan residents did not think internet search engines like Google should be regulated to make sure that positive stories about the Trump administration are placed more highly in results.

About 54 percent of voters said they opposed creating internet search engine regulations to ensure prominent placement of Trump-friendly new stories, while 24.5 percent said they supported the idea and 13 percent were undecided. 

A plurality of strong Republicans said they agreed with the call to regulate Google, with about 40 percent supporting and 34 percent opposing. But Democrats, independents and voters who said they leaned Republican disapproved, many of them strongly. 

The poll results about the media come as no surprise to other experts.

While there’s always been some cynicism toward the media, consumers increasingly are faulting outlets whose reporting does not align with their own beliefs and lauding journalists whose coverage supports their views, said Josh Pasek, associate professor in communication studies at the University of Michigan and part of UM’s Center for Political Studies.

“I think it’s a general phenomenon,” Pasek said. “The way that it’s playing out politically at the moment, though, I think is more heated and politicized.”

People expressing distrust of the media tend to have very different definitions of what the media are, excluding Fox News or CNN from the definition based on which supports their beliefs, Lacy said.

In some cases, he said, media outlets have done little to help themselves.

When the media failed to predict Trump’s win in 2016, segments of the population felt it was because their plight was being under-reported or misreported, that journalists were “out of touch” with Trump voters, Pasek said.


Fake polls?

Political campaigns are trying to tap the media distrust.

The campaigns of GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette and Republican U.S. Senate hopeful John James on Monday questioned other results from the Glengariff poll, noting the firm was among many whose surveys had shown Trump trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in Michigan a month out from the 2016 election.

Republican Party officials have said their own internal numbers did not show Trump leading the late-breaking race until four days before the election.

The Schuette campaign, trailing Democrat Gretchen Whitmer by nearly 14 percentage points in the poll, sent out a fundraising plea for supports to help fight “the fake polls,” echoing the president’s criticism of “fake news.”

The James campaign, down 22.5 points to Democratic incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow, asked for donations after a “fake poll was published that claims John James is behind in this race.”

Neither campaign agreed to release any internal poll numbers to dispute the findings when asked on Tuesday, but James campaign manager Tori Sachs said “our numbers show this to be a much closer race” with “a clear pathway for victory for John James.”

In a fundraising email that bashed the “liberal media,” Schuette political director Carter Bundy noted a Detroit News headline and Glengariff poll from 2016. “They want to discourage conservatives so they don’t go to the polls and vote,” he wrote.

Asked about the claims, Schuette spokesman Chris Gustafson said the campaign’s point was polls pointed toward a Clinton “rout in 2016 and that didn’t turn out to be the case so voters need to take this info with a big grain of salt.”

This week's Detroit News poll stories noted that surveys reflect a snapshot of voter sentiment at a specific time and do not predict election outcomes.

Czuba said his latest 2018 poll results suggest significantly different dynamics than in 2016. Voters across the political spectrum who were polled last week rated their motivation at an average of 9.4 out of 10, up from 4.7 points two years ago.

“Independents, the soft center, just wasn’t interested in either of the candidates” in 2016, Czuba said. “What we didn’t realize then is what they were essentially saying was, ‘We’re not going to vote. We’re not going to turn out.’”

But the distrust of journalists is legitimate, said Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing-based pollster and Republican strategist.

While Trump may have his faults, the relentless negative coverage of the president by mainstream media is clearly an effort to further divide voters and reflects the political stances of many reporters, Mitchell said.

People who distrust mainstream media sources will look for alternatives, outlets “calling balls and strikes,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate that the news media has become so biased in its presentation because it was one of those parts of society that people had trust in,” Mitchell said.

As news and politics become increasing national, stark differences in opinion become apparent throughout the country and polemic speech from the Oval Office widens the divide, UM's Pasek said.

“That’s a tough bridge to span,” he said.


Are media 'enemy of people'?

Agree 30%

Disagree 64%

Neither 4%

Undecided 2%

Regulate internet search engines?

Support 25%

Oppose 54%

Neither 13%

Undecided 7%

Note: Sept. 5-7 poll of 600 likely Michigan voters. Margin of error: plus-minus 4 percentage points. Totals may not equal 100 percent due to rounding.

Source: Glengariff Group