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Americans don't trust the media, but their reasons often don't add up [Updated]

September 26, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • Comedian Bill Maher thinks the media idolize undecided voters, apparently failing to understand that they're the ones who decide presidential elections.
Comedian Bill Maher thinks the media idolize undecided voters, apparently… (Janet Van Ham / Associated…)

This is a corrected version of the original post; see the note below.

It's a drag to be a cultural villain. Lawyers, politicians, unionized teachers -- all have felt the sting of public disdain for their careers, their ethics, themselves. And then there's the lowest of the low: journalists.

Being one of that species, I know there's no way to defend the profession without appearing self-serving. But as I hear the unending criticisms of the media -- much of it coming from people who are media figures themselves, and part of it stemming from an intensive and purposeful campaign to discredit media outlets that don't slant the news toward a conservative viewpoint -- I can't help feeling that an awful lot of it reflects confusion and ignorance on the part of the critics.

Such critics are not hard to find. A recent Gallup poll showed that 60% of Americans don't trust the media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly, a record high. I see examples of that worsening attitude daily, from conversations with people who blame the media for failing to report on what really matters, to vitriolic Facebook posts from friends who think the media are corporate slaves or liars, to TV commentators who blame the media for ... well, whatever's in the news lately.

In my experience, people who are angry at or disillusioned by the media are often well educated. They also tend to be intense consumers of media, reading newspapers and magazines daily, scouring the Web for interesting news and often posting links to it on social media, and watching cable news shows or political satirists. So why do they keep devouring something they claim to dislike so much?

To get to the bottom of that, I thought I'd take a closer look at three recent attacks on the media by prominent critics: comedian Bill Maher, who blames the media for idolizing undecided voters; Fox Business Network's Stuart Varney, who blames the media for failing to blame President Obama for high gasoline prices; and radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, who blames the media for ignoring revelations in an August column by conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza that Obama is ignoring his half-brother. (I'm giving the majority of the focus to conservatives here because this is also the group that is maddest at the media; according to Gallup, only 26% of Republicans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, compared with 58% of Democrats.)

The first thing one notices about this group is that every one of them is, in fact, a part of the media. So are Maher, Varney and Limbaugh really just mad at themselves? Actually, they seem to be mad at specific segments of the media.

Maher's target, as best I can tell, are news reporters from traditional "mainstream" media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcast TV networks. To Maher, these reporters treat undecided voters "as if they were somehow more noble and discerning than the rest of us." It's a hilarious comedy bit, but his argument is flawed. What Maher interprets as idolization is really just good journalism.

It makes perfect sense to devote more news attention to undecided voters than partisans because, like it or not, this is the group that determines the outcome of presidential elections. That means their decisions matter more. Maher also appears to be upset that mainstream journalists simply report what these voters say, rather than pointing out that they're idiots. Whether or not they're really idiots, the traditional ethic of objectivity (not to mention libel law) prevents reporters from doing that. Would Maher be happier with news reporters if they focused on groups that don't matter at election time, while also belittling them? Probably not.

The Varney and Limbaugh rants can be lumped together into what is a consistent line of attack by conservative pundits: The media are in the tank for Obama and the Democrats. Their criticisms have even less basis in reality than Maher's.

Fox News, which is part of the largest media empire on Earth, somehow manages to persuade its audience to blame the rest of the media but not Fox for the nation's problems by referring to its target as the "establishment" or "mainstream" media. Varney's complaint, which is of course not directed at the plethora of conservative-labeled talk-radio hosts, bloggers and other media outlets, is that the nonpartisan media aren't raising enough of a fuss about the connection between Obama's energy policies and high gasoline prices, which only proves that they're part of a liberal conspiracy to reelect the president.

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