Examining the Israeli and US Media
In the US, a recent Gallup poll on public confidence in the US mass media documented a 41% trust when it comes to reporting the news fully, fairly, and accurately. This is up from 32% in 2016, but down from 54% in 2002, 72% in 1976, and 68% in 1972 (which was the first Gallup media poll).
While Democrats overwhelmingly trust the mass media (69%), Republicans’ trust is very low (15%), and Independents’ trust is relatively low (36%). Moreover, according to Gallup, while the trust in mass media is higher than the trust in Congress (37%), it is lower than the trust in the institutions of the military (91%), Supreme Court (78%), organized labor (74%), and the presidency (55%).
In Israel, the latest poll, published by the Israel Democracy Institute, on Israeli public confidence in mass media, documented a 36% trust in mass media, compared with 24% in 2016, 52% in 2011, 38% in 2008, and 51% in 2004. While Israel’s left-of-center overwhelmingly trusts the mass media (64%), Israel’s right-of-center resoundingly does not (16%).
Furthermore, while confidence in Israel’s media is higher than confidence in Israel’s political parties (14%), and similar to the confidence in Israel’s Executive and Legislature (30%), it is substantially lower than the confidence in Israel’s Defense Forces (90%; 41% among Israeli Arabs), Israel’s presidency (71%; 37% among Arabs), Supreme Court (55%; 56% among Arabs), and Israel’s police force (44%; 38% among Israeli Arabs).
The Left-Right divergence of confidence in mass media highlights intensifying political, ideological, social, and cultural polarization that has afflicted both the US and Israel. In the US, the cultural war was reflected by the coverage of President Trump’s July 4 speech at Mount Rushmore.
In Israel, there is a similar divergence of opinion between the (opposing) coverage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Israel’s main TV and radio stations, as well as Yedioth Ahronoth (the second largest daily), on the one hand, and the (supportive) Israel Hayom (the largest daily), on the other hand.
The relatively low trust in the US 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 less 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, although media outlets have tried to undermine support for Israel in the US, according to the February 2020 annual Gallup poll of foreign countries’ favorability, Israel enjoys a 74% favorable opinion by the US public. The Palestinian Authority enjoys a meager 23% favorability, despite its embrace by the “elite media.”
The mass media’s dramatic fallibility was exposed by the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Most of the US mass media underestimated the citizenry’s frustration with the political, media, and academic establishment, and severely underestimated Trump as a legitimate presidential candidate.
Israel’s mass 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 citizenry in most subsequent election cycles, including the February 2020 election. Just like the US mass media, Israel’s mass media has been challenged by the citizenry 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.
Will the US and Israeli mass media resume their role as a provider of credible information, and reduce their role as another player in the political arena? Will the mass media learn 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 US-Israel Initiative.