Dog Bites Man: Public Distrusts Media

It’s not exactly a “man bites dog” story.

For some reason, another big study about the media was just released. Doing the releasing was the Washington-based and presumptively named Project for Excellence in Journalism. The results say the public doesn’t think much of the media; however, the media think rather highly of the media.

We needed the “State of the News Media 2004” to tell us that? What next? Revelations that the public doesn’t trust politicians, car salesmen, telemarketers, itinerant roofers, Flat Earth Society tenets and Don King?

It seems that a majority of the public thinks that journalists only care about fairness after they’ve exhausted other priorities, such as biases, agendas and career advancement. The public also thinks that news organizations worship the bottom line instead of venerating truth.

And journalists — and their bosses — disagree with such perceptions.

None of this is particularly new, let alone news — at least since the Hearst papers kick-started the Spanish-American War.

But more context might help.

First of all, the nature of news must be acknowledged. Mostly, it’s what’s unexpected. The bridge that didn’t collapse. The plane that didn’t crash. That’s not news. That’s why so much of the news is “so negative.” That’s why there is often the need for a soft “kicker” at the end of news broadcasts.

The electronic media hasn’t been the same since news morphed from public-service loss leader to profit center. Electronic’s strength is visual impact and immediacy. But it’s been misused by a short-attention span public that likes its information packaged as entertainment. It was never intended to be America’s main — let alone sole — source of news.

As for the journalists, they are the way they are because of the nature of the calling and the culture of their education — not because they are Pulitzer hustlers or co-conspirators in bias. Many have hubris-driven, crusader complexes: if they don’t get the truth out, it may never get out. Ongoing Watergate fallout.

Moreover, they are taught as undergraduates to be hardened skeptics and to protect “the people,” i.e. the “little guy,” from all that is big: government, business, behemoth bureaucracies of all stripe. Many have the muckraking gene.

That’s why most mainstream media — talk radio and the Fox Network notwithstanding — are to the left of center. Most journalists are well intentioned; the ( New York Times) Jayson Blairs and the ( USA Today) Jack Kelleys, journalistic prostitutes both, remain the rare exception.

The business of the media is not an oxymoron, but a unique challenge. Selling advertising is not selling out. Unless you’re Havana’s Granma , that’s how you stay in business. You have to succeed in the marketplace before you succeed in the marketplace of ideas.

It should be noted that with the exception of publications sold at supermarket checkout counters, newspapers don’t print stories because “that’s what sells papers.” The papers would sell anyhow.

And it must never be forgotten that the media is the only business that has its own amendment, the First. The press is that important. Such that Thomas Jefferson was memorably moved to say: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

But Jefferson, for all his prescience, never saw the slippery slope coming. Alexis de Tocqueville saw vexing scenarios unfolding and nailed it when he observed that “In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.”

But Paul Newman said it even better: “I wish I could sue the New York Post , but it’s awfully hard to sue a garbage can.”

Which is about where this discussion began.

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