You dislike us. You really dislike us. Or maybe the harsher truth is, we've begun to dislike ourselves.
Let's admit it: We in the mainstream media deserve some of this rancor and resentment after the year we've had. Jayson Blair's serial falsehoods, the New York Times management crackup, the Washington Post's gung-ho reporting (and later re-reporting) of the Pfc. Jessica Lynch rescue, media mogul Conrad Black's financial faux pas, CBS' leveraging of a Michael Jackson interview and entertainment special -- the list of snafus in 2003 goes on and on.
No wonder so many people have been taking us to task: pundits, bloggers, journalism school professors and politicians right up to and including the president of the United States, who told Brit Hume of Fox News that he rarely reads newspapers because "a lot of times there's opinions mixed in with news." Instead, Bush revealed, he relies on "people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world." Not only are mainstream media untrustworthy, Bush implied, but also largely irrelevant.
The leader of the free world isn't alone in his meager estimation of the fourth estate. It's no secret that the public's faith in the mass media has been slipping for years, that journalists today are regarded by many Americans as predatory, biased, out of touch with readers, motivated by personal agendas, complacent and complicit with the corporate and governmental powers that be.
In a poll of 1,201 adults conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 56% of those surveyed said news organizations "often report inaccurately," 62% thought the media "try to cover up mistakes" and 53% believed the media "are politically biased." Seventy percent also said the media were "influenced by the powerful," and 56% said journalists don't care about the people they report on. Most of these negative numbers have held steady for some time, although public perceptions of the media improved briefly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
What's striking today is how many media insiders and observers agree that the profession is falling down on the job. Bookstands teem with teeth-gnashing titles testifying to the media's alleged moral vacuousness, lack of fairness and independence, or sheer incompetence: "Journalistic Fraud: How the New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted"; "Off With Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists in American Politics, Media & Business"; "Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception -- How the Media Failed to Cover the War On Iraq"; "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us"; "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News."
(Rule of thumb: Any book about the media with a subtitle of five or more words probably won't be flattering.)
Many of these new books, along with stacks of newspaper columns and magazine articles, are being written not by Beltway spin-meisters and hard-core ideologues but by veteran journalists, career newsmen and -women who've come to some grim conclusions about their industry, its owners and its practitioners. Are they raising red flags or merely grinding axes? Do the mainstream media's problems go beyond politics, beyond the transgressions of individual reporters, beyond the increasing pressures of the bottom line?
The crucible of war
In the months of the buildup, invasion and aftermath of the Iraq war, the criticism has grown louder. Wars are a kind of crucible, and although many courageous journalists have risked their lives to produce first-rate work from the battlefront, the Iraq conflict also provoked intense scrutiny of how the mass media does its job. The spectacle of Geraldo Rivera drawing a map in the sand of his location (and that of the U.S. troops he was covering), Peter Arnett giving an interview to Iraqi state television (and his subsequent firing by NBC) and, above all, the controversial practice of "embedding" reporters with military units all raised questions about the media's reliability, judgment and independence.
Possibly adding to the media's difficulties was the public's conflicted view of the proper role of the press, particularly in times of crisis. According to the same Pew poll, 70% of those surveyed said it was a good thing for the media to have "a pro-American" viewpoint. Yet 64% said they favored "neutral" rather than "pro-American" coverage of the war on terrorism. Even so, 46% of respondents thought some news organizations were "becoming too critical of America," while 25% said they were becoming "too pro-American."