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Remarks From Paul StarobinBy Paul Starobin
April 28, 1997
I'm not sure whether the news media faces a credibility "crisis" as Mel Dubnick says, but the pollmeisters are onto something. Public trust in the news media has eroded over the last 20/30 odd years and it is a vexing, if trendy, problem. Let's back up and try to puzzle through this.
First off the "believability" base for the press has never been that high off to being with--and for good reason. The media has often behaved badly--back in Thomas Jefferson's day, a partisan Federalist newspaper published the unsubstantiated allegation that Jefferson had a bastard daughter with his slave, Sally Hemmings. "The journalists of the United States are generally in a very humble position, with a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s. Today's journalists are less humble and better educated--but still disposed towards the vulgar and sensational. I'd be worried if everyone said they believed everything they read.
The public, thank goodness, still looks to the press as a watchdog. That Pew survey cited by Dubnick also found that by a 60-28 percent margin, Americans would like to see more investigative reporting. What many people are objecting to are dubious news gathering practices, such as the rampant use of hidden cameras, a staple of the TV tabloid magazine genre.
Then there's the "liberal bias" issue. Journalists as a class are much more disposed towards political liberalism--broadly defined as a favorable attitude towards government solutions to problems in society. This has long been true, but the country over the last 20-plus years has moved to the Right. Consider this: Back in 1936, 70 percent of Washington correspondents supported either FDR or a candidate to his left and FDR won with 62 percent of the public's vote. In 1992, according to a Roper Center survey, 89 percent of Washington journalists voted for Clinton, who won with only 43 percent of the vote.
I don't cite the numbers to suggest that journalists have a conscious bias in favor of Clinton--it doesn't work that way. But I do think that broad political dispositions matter. For example, Time's 1994 cover of Newt Gingrich as a poor-bashing "Uncle Scrooge" declared that the new Speaker was "heartless." But the mass of Americans have a different attitude towards social-welfare programs. (There were even plenty of Time folk who thought the cover was unfair.) And the mainstream media is woefully ignorant of religious conservatives.
I also think the media's "cynicism bias"--the politicians are all crooks and the like--has become more entrenched. Although journalists have long been a cynical lot, the Baby Boomers in charge of things these days, like the Baby Boomers outside of journalism, have grown up in the disillusioning shadows of Vietnam and Watergate. The media is more cynical and the public is more cynical about institutions, including the media. Not a pretty trend.
And lots of ordinary folks view the Washington media as part of the (discredited) Establishment. This is not a misperception. Journalistic buckrakers including Cokie and Steve Roberts, by taking money for speeches from special interest groups, compromise the media's integrity. And when journalists act like trained bears at the circus on shows like the McLaughlin Group, the public starts viewing them as...trained bears.
Solutions? The mainstream press, in Washington and elsewhere, should become more diverse in its hiring. That doesn't mean affirmative action for conservatives, but it does mean expanding the concept of "diversity" beyond race and gender to include heterogeneity in all its glorious dimensions. How about fewer interns from Ivy League schools, who get a big leg up on competition? News organizations should follow the lead of U.S. News & World Report and clamp down on speech-for-fees buckraking. (The New York Times is now considering a more stringent policy.) Maybe there should be term limits--or remedial field education--for longtime Washington editors and reporters. Message to ABC's Prime Time Live & Co. : Stop using hidden cameras as a ratings ploy.
And celebrity journalists ought to get off the gasbug circuit--or at least limit their trained bear appearances. They should just take a deep breath and say: "I am not the story. I am not the story. I am..."