Inside the numbers: Trusting the media

Posted: Jun 17, 2003 12:00 AM

When our latest survey showed that 59 percent of Americans "trust their local newspaper to report the truth," I was dumbfounded.

Prior to the survey, I was convinced that the recent controversy over questionable reporting at The New York Times had evaporated what little trust most people still had in newspapers. I also thought most Americans would view their local newspaper as a bundle of ink on paper, filled with hidden agendas, subtle bias and comic-book style graphics.

I was completely wrong. Let me suggest why I was so off base.

In his latest traveling show, comedy superstar Jerry Seinfeld makes an apt and very funny point: Why do cable TV news shows continually scroll the latest information across the bottom of the screens? As Seinfeld points out, this is television. "If we wanted to read, we'd look at a newspaper," he says.

As usual, this humorist for our generation has put his finger on the essence of America and the new information age. News today is one wild and spinning circus. The secret to the survival of newspapers will come when their leadership and writers recognize the public really doesn't live or die based on our every written word!

What seems to make newspapers meaningful to their subscribers is, in part, the fact that they are tangible. We can hold a newspaper, underline portions, clip articles and even draw moustaches and devil horns on the photos of pictured people. Unlike TV, newspapers put the reader in control. We can decide the order and time of presentation for news, sports and lifestyle. And after this picking and choosing, we can then elect to fling the whole thing into a recycling bin, or yes, even wrap fish with it.

Then there are newspapers such as The New York Times. The Times takes itself very seriously, probably because it really does consider itself "the nation's newspaper of record." Funny, I didn't see that designation being made by an act of Congress.

In truth, the so-called "journalism scandal" the Times recently suffered would have been much less of a story had the Times not taken itself so seriously in the first place. Why did heads have to roll, including some that contained brilliant -- though perhaps overly liberal -- minds, such as Howell Raines? Perhaps as a sacrifice to the gods of self-importance.

Yes, readers want good journalism. But realize that they also live in an era in which TV networks take actresses and actors and turn them into news anchors (sometime failed news anchors). And most newspaper reporters, editors and columnists do their best to write accurate stories.

Of course, that doesn't mean some papers don't keep pushing their points of view through creative writing and editing of stories and headlines, however subtly. And some may fail to report good stories because they might prove flattering to ideas or people they don't like. But these gimmicks are found on TV "news talk" programs, too.

The fact is that we live in a world where young people grow up both more cynical and more accepting than in the past. Just because Barbara Wa-Wa says it, or The New York Times writes it, doesn't make something true in their minds.

And that's a good thing. In the end, newspapers are a forum of facts and opinion that converge to inform and entertain. The reader must literally decide what portions he or she will tolerate.

Too many politicians, entertainers and business leaders assume that the average American reads his or her newspaper with the same "inside" knowledge the journalist possess. That's simply not the case. Hence, the general public's support for their local paper.

So newspaper editors of the world, take heart. Neither the foibles of the great New York Times nor the general left-of-center bent among so many in media have in any way ruined the newspaper industry. For all their flaws, papers are generally relied upon and trusted by the American people.

So here's to our readers. May they continue to read us, fight with us and then throw us away.