Read all the remarks from:
Remarks From Paul StarobinBy Paul Starobin
April 29, 1997
"Americans by and large like their media?" C'mon Ed. Leave aside the Pew survey if you want. I didn't detect a whole lotta love for the news media in the Food Lion case, when a North Carolina jury found ABC liable for $5.5 million in punitive damages for using hidden cameras--and sent a note to the network saying that they should reassess their newsgathering techniques. A freak verdict? I don't think so. Look at the libel arena: The Wall Street Journal just got tagged by a Houston jury with a record $223 million judgement on a suit brought by a brokerage firm. We've come a very long way from the days when a network anchor, Walter Cronkite, was known as the most trusted man in America. Perhaps this isn't altogether bad--the public was innocent about TV news in the early years--but the climate has changed.
I agree with Sarah that a political campaign started by Nixon-era Republicans helped to breed an atmosphere of mistrust. Documents recently released by the National Archives show that the Nixon White House was deeply enmeshed in efforts to promote the activities of conservative media-watchdog groups, including Accuracy in Media, founded in 1969 by Reed Irvine. On April 11, 1972, Chuck Colson told Nixon staff chief H.R. Haldeman of efforts to develop a guide for tracking network television news coverage: "We think we're on the verge...of having a pretty effective apparatus for discovering bias. . .documenting the case and then making the complaint and generating the publicity desired."
But the conservative media-watchdog industry, which thrives more than ever today, doesn't sufficiently explain public mistrust of the media. I know plenty of true-blue liberals in my native Massachusetts who view The New York Times & Co. as a vessel for centrist brand of corporate capitalism. I suspect mistrust is fed by fear of the media's power in an Information Age. This taps a deep vein in America's political culture--from the "know nothings" of the 1850s to the Ross Perot crowd of the 1990s, there has always been a fear of big, remote institutions, of which the media is certainly one. (Perot organizers in Las Vegas told me last year that their favorite magazine was Media Bypass, which claims to present the true news not reported by the Establishement press.)
Although concentration of media ownership may be a worrisome trend, let me suggest a different problem: the balkanization of the media-consuming public. With the Web, 100-channel-plus digital TV, talk radio, specialty magazines and the like, we seem to be headed towards a world in which niche groups occupy their own media islands--media for conservatives, media for blacks, etc...Just look at the decline of general-interest magazines. Diversity is great, but whatever happened to the media as a facilitator of a common conversation in America? Not that anything can be done or maybe should be done about this--people make their own selections in the media supermarket. I think the trend impoverishes debate, but we'll all survive.
I agree, Sarah, that today's know-it-allish reporters sometimes inject too much attitude/opinion in their pieces, but I have a tough time seeing the press as timid. Has the press been timid in exposing Gingrich's GOPAC network, in digging into the Clinton/Riady connection? In this respect, I agree with Ed on the state of political reporting. We all like to joke about how the press has gone uptown and become a bunch of briefcase-toting nerds--and it's true--but the flip side of that is a higher level of professional expertise and dedication. With the FOIA laws, Nexis and other tools of the trade, today's sleuths are able to burrow more deeply into institutions than they used to. Sure, they miss big stories--sometimes huge ones, like the S&L debacle. But coverage of government and especially of business has become more trenchant and comprehensive. Nobody in America has a good excuse for being ignorant--yeah, I'm biased, but in my mind, fifty cents for a good newspaper remains one of the great bargains in America.