The media's trust problem

Posted: Sep 29, 2004 12:00 AM

"The traditional media in this country is in tune with the elite, not the people."
- Rupert Murdoch, Chairman, News Corporation, in the Sept. 26 Wall Street Journal.

That sums up the public perception of the definers and disseminators of what is called "news" in this country. The media perform mostly for themselves and their elite friends, not the people they presume to serve. This attitude is responsible for the loss of viewers and readers. The media appear willing to go down with the ship, rather than let someone throw them a lifeline.

The lack of trust has moved beyond fringe groups to the mainstream. According to two recent polls - one by the Gallup organization and the other by Rasmussen - the public's perception of the media's credibility has declined to the point where a substantial and growing number of people see the major newspapers and networks as biased in favor of John Kerry.

The Gallup poll, conducted after the CBS "60 Minutes" piece on George Bush's Texas National Guard records, but before the network apologized for using fraudulent documents, concluded that "just 44 percent of Americans express confidence in the media's ability to report news stories accurately and fairly."

That marks a "significant drop" from 54 percent expressing confidence only a year ago. The poll also found that 48 percent of Americans view the news media as "too liberal," while 15 percent view it as "too conservative."

The Rasmussen poll says many more viewers regard the three broadcast networks and CNN as biased in favor of Kerry, with CBS "seen as the most biased - 37 percent believe that network news team is trying to help the Kerry campaign" - compared to only 10 percent who believe CBS is trying to aid the president.

Rasmussen also found the big newspapers - The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post - suffer from a perception that they favor Kerry, with the Times leading the pack with 35 percent of respondents saying they think it's biased.

It will surprise a lot of people - it surprised me - that, according to Gallup, "those with lower levels of education and income are more likely to have confidence in the media's accuracy and fairness." Most media people believe it is the uneducated who trust them the least. You know, those "ignoramuses" who rely on talk radio to tell them what to think.

Journalism is the only profession of which I am aware that ignores public attitudes. How long could a restaurant stay in business if it had bad food, dirty restrooms, high prices and lousy service, especially if a competitor opened across the street with everything the other place doesn't have?

Competition promotes media and information diversity as never before. Cable, especially Fox News Channel (for which I toil and which is regarded in the two polls, along with The Wall Street Journal, as biased toward President Bush), has started to even the playing field. Internet blogs are now major information players.

The big networks and establishment newspapers are no longer the news gatekeepers. The journalistic equivalent of the Berlin Wall has fallen, and millions are enjoying a new birth of informational freedom they had not previously known. This may not be good for the elite press, but it is great for the people, who feel empowered beyond letters to the editor.

In his Sept. 26 Washington Post column, David Broder writes, "The professional practices and code of responsibility in journalism have suffered a body blow." Broder writes that one reason for the decline in trust is big media's "offering their most prestigious and visible jobs not to people deeply imbued with the culture and values of newsrooms, but to stars imported from the political world."

He is partially right, but that's not the main reason. Journalists seem to write only for those who agree with them. Many treat with contempt the values and beliefs held by millions of Americans. They promote every lifestyle and behavior choice that differs from the experience of the overwhelming majority as something new, trendy and worthy of admiration, if not emulation. Anyone who protests is labeled a bigot.

Prior to cable and the Internet, the public had to take it, even if they didn't like it. Now they don't have to take it. Instead of lamenting the loss of readers and viewers, the big media should pay attention to a country not comprised of elites, but of real people with legitimate concerns. When they do, they'll win them back. If they don't, they won't.