Media elite debate whether the media are elite

Posted: Apr 15, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Ever since November, when President George W. Bush stunned so-called "media elites" by winning re-election, the media elite have been haunted by self-doubt.

How could they have missed what was coming? Is America really divided into reds and blues - the colors assigned to a U.S. map displaying voting patterns? Are the media really elitist - disconnected from "ordinary Americans," as the media like to refer to the folks out yonder?

The answer is implicit in the question, isn't it? When "they" are "ordinary," then the media are Something Else. Extraordinary, perhaps? Even so, it's a hopeful, if somewhat belated, sign that industry insiders are aware something's amiss.

Thus, editors convening here this week at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors did what editors often do when they gather in a group. They tortured themselves with self-recrimination. What are we doing wrong? Why are circulations dropping? Why do they hate us?

Our beloved newspaper industry is in trouble, you may have heard. Between declining public trust in old "dead tree" media, dips in circulation and advertising revenues, competition from new digital media, not to mention relentless pressure from those fact-checking whippersnappers hurling deadeye darts from the blogosphere, newspapers are in a bit of a slump.

And things are predicted to get much worse unless newspapers make radical changes.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose company's holdings include 20th Century Fox, Fox Television Studios and the New York Post, spoke bluntly to the gathering about how the digital revolution blindsided the traditional news industry.

Murdoch focused mostly on how to respond to changing appetites of the rising generation of news consumers, who are more likely to turn to the Internet for their tidings. He urged that newspapers save themselves by embracing the digital revolution, in part by incorporating blogging into news coverage and by improving Web sites.

But what struck me as far more interesting than the mechanics of the news business were Murdoch's observations about the human aspect, specifically journalists' attitudes toward the consumers they hope to woo.

Basically, he said, too many journalists think their readers are, shall we say, dim.

". Studies show we're in an odd position: We're more trusted by the people who aren't reading us. And when you ask journalists what they think about their readers, the picture grows darker," Murdoch said.

He cited a recent study that found the percentage of national journalists who have confidence in ordinary Americans' ability to make good decisions has declined by more than 20 points since 1999.

This attitude may reflect personal politics or prejudices, Murdoch said, but "really, it's a polite way of saying that reporters and editors think their readers are stupid. . Newspapers whose employees look down on their readers can have no hope of ever succeeding as a business."

It's amazing how honest people can be when they're not looking to get promoted.

There's something kind of adorable, in an odd way, about the elite media trying to decide if they're elitist. It's sort of like inmates in an insane asylum considering their circumstances and concluding: "You don't look crazy to me."

With a few exceptions, journalists tend to think mostly alike about most things, and they generally tend to be more liberal than mainstream America. This isn't a criticism necessarily - there's no Fourth Estate conspiracy - it's just the nature of the beast. After all, what kind of person wants to labor long hours in exchange for public contempt and low pay? Brilliant people, obviously.

The problem is, when you spend most of your time with people who essentially mirror your attitudes and beliefs, you begin to get a distorted view of the world. You look around and conclude: "You don't seem elitist to me."

It's hard to be objective about oneself, of course, which is why people go to therapists to solve life's little riddles.

In life, it is good to know oneself, but in business, it is crucial to know one's customers. As most ordinary Americans know, there are lots of ways to be smart and lots of ways to be dumb, and not all are quantifiable. Common sense, street smarts and country wisdom aren't measured by standardized tests, diplomas or resumes.

If newspapers die, it won't be because journalists were smarter than their readers.