Pew: 49% of Republicans say freedom of news orgs to criticize leaders is very important to democracy

Welp, my mistake. Last fall, around two weeks before the election, Pew asked Clinton and Trump supporters whether they thought various civic institutions were important to the strength of American democracy. Some, like open and fair elections and protecting the rights of people with unpopular views, scored well among both parties. But there was a gap on the media: 72 percent of Clinton fans thought it was very important that news organizations be free to criticize political leaders versus just 49 percent of Trump fans who agreed. My take on that was that it was probably mostly an artifact of timing: “Any poll you take right now, in the thick of a national election, will inevitably see the data distorted due to partisan passions. Ask Trumpers at any other time of year whether it’s important for the media to be able to criticize political leaders and you might get 60 percent or better on this question, I suspect.”

Pew asked the question again last month, this time of Republicans and Democrats, not Trump and Clinton supporters. Result:

Democrats’ support for the media challenging political leaders is up four points, Republicans’ support is … totally flat, and still not even a majority. Oh well.

Not an excuse but an (obvious) explanation: The same “Trump effect” that produced the Pew numbers last October is still at work holding them down today. The right’s imagination is more consumed with media bias than the left’s is even under the best of circumstances, for understandable reasons. So Republicans are probably destined to look more dimly at the value of a free press than Democrats are no matter what. Last fall, though, with the media unabashedly anti-Trump and the GOP seemingly headed for decisive defeat partly because of it, it was easier than usual for Republicans to feel skeptical about the press as some sort of boon to democracy. Fast-forward four months: Trump is now in charge but the antagonism between him and the media has gotten worse. Damaging leaks appear every day, and not-so-damaging stories are breathlessly hyped in hopes of further undermining him. Trump himself attacks the media regularly from his presidential soapbox. Under the circumstances, it should probably be seen as a minor triumph that esteem on the right for news organizations criticizing political leaders hasn’t slipped any.

The great missing variable is how the numbers would look under a Democratic president in normal times, i.e. without the context of an election. I’d bet Republican respect for the press was pretty solid when Matt Drudge was leaking the “blue dress” story about Bill Clinton in 1998. If Hillary had won and some paper had dug up an inevitable new Clinton scandal, you would have almost certainly seen a boost in respect then too. This topic isn’t immune from partisan pressures, as literally nothing in America is anymore. In fact, here’s a fun result from today’s poll:

Most people in each party aren’t mindless partisan hacks, but enough are to produce some mighty impressive shifts in quick order. Here’s an even more fun result from the Pew poll published in October. Remember all the drama we went through during the transition about recounts and faithless electors and Russia having “hacked the election”? Two weeks before Election Day, when it looked for all the world like Hillary would win, partisan feelings about recognizing the legitimacy of the result were … different:

When asked in October how much confidence they had that the election would be “open and fair,” 88 percent of Clinton voters said they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence versus just 11 percent who said not much or none. Among Trump voters, the split was 43/56. Among those who backed Hillary strongly, it was 92/8; among those who backed Trump strongly, it was just 36/63. It’s amazing what an electoral outcome can do to change your perspective on the world — or not do, per the GOP numbers today on the value of a critical press.

One last note. The more educated you are, says Pew, the more likely you are to see the institutions it asked about as very important to the strength of U.S. democracy. But it’s not a mirror image between the parties. When Democrats are asked if it’s important for the rights of people with unpopular views to be protected, 92 percent of college grads say yes versus 74 percent of whose without degrees. Among Republicans, those numbers are 74 and 63 percent, respectively. The share among Democrats without degrees is the same as the share among Republicans who have one. Not terrific! Bigly.

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