In his latest column on the media, Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times tries to draw some lessons from the terrible year that was. While acknowledging the media’s failures—particularly its reliance on polls showing a victory for Hillary Clinton and its disconnect from Trump’s America—he also notes that the media had some extraordinary successes, citing investigative reports that uncovered Trump had bragged about sexually assaulting women and likely avoided paying income taxes for decades. Rutenberg ends up affirming the traditional role of “mainstream, non-opinion” news media: that it should not “determine outcomes,” and that it should “be true to the facts in a way that helps voters envision what the candidates will be like in the nation’s highest office.”
The larger question, however, is whether media consumption even works this way in a post-truth environment. Rutenberg is right: The Times and The Washington Post and others broke blockbuster stories about Trump that, just an election cycle ago, would have sunk his candidacy. But this time they didn’t, partly because his supporters didn’t care and partly because the mainstream media itself has become discredited in the eyes of partisan voters. As the Times reported in a separate article today, conservative news outlets have appropriated the term “fake news”—originally applied to intentionally false news stories spread online—to smear fact-based stories coming out of the mainstream media.
The media, in other words, has fallen prey to the hyper-polarization that has disintegrated governing norms in Congress and abetted the election of Donald Trump. The challenge for the Times and other non-opinion outlets is to figure out how to stay relevant in a political landscape in which no institution is broadly recognized as a neutral, authoritative source of what is and isn’t true.