America’s war on terrorism is likely the biggest story any journalist born since 1941 has ever seen. All the major media outlets have poured time, money and manpower into covering it. Still, this is a sobering time for journalism. According to a Gallup poll conducted November 8-11 -- and anyone who’s ever followed a presidential election knows journalists worship polls -- only 43% of Americans approve of the way the news media is handling the war on terrorism. More than half, 54%, disapprove.
That survey confirms a rapid erosion of public support for journalists, who had been enjoying a renaissance. Right after the September 11 attacks, a Pew poll found 89% of respondents thought the media were doing either a good or an excellent job. By mid-October, that number was down to 74%, on its way to the current 43%.
What explains the drop? Well, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, the networks went wall to wall with coverage. No commercials. No entertainment programming. No fluff stories. When the coverage was substantial and factual, approval ratings soared.
Since then, we’ve seen a move away from straight journalism, and back toward sensationalism. Anthrax scares rocked newsrooms around the country, frightening journalists more than everyone else.
Tom Brokaw discussed his scrape with the bacteria, and signed off saying, “In Cipro we trust”. In the October 3 Washington Post, Sally Quinn wrote about her search for a suitable gas mask: “The prices, if you're on a waiting list, range from $ 50 to $ 500, and nobody can tell you why the more expensive mask is better than the less expensive ones except for how long they last. (I got the ones that operate for 12 hours.)” Maureen Dowd followed in the October 10 New York Times, mentioning that her own gas mask didn’t give her much solace: “The noise of military planes roaring over the capital at 4 a.m. unnerves me. My gas mask ominously stares back at me from the bedpost where it hangs, scaring me even more.”
No wonder so many people think the media made too much of the anthrax story; 60% of respondents told Gallup that journalists had overreacted with their coverage of the anthrax scare. In the same survey, 69% said Congress did not overreact – even though the House shut down for several days after an anthrax tainted letter was delivered to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
That’s probably why 77% said they approved of the way that Congress had handled the terrorist attacks. And despite all its problems, the Postal Service -- which tried to carry on with business as usual -- also got a solid 77% approval rating.
At the same time, punditry worked its way back into news coverage. After only a few weeks of fighting, newspaper headlines and TV talking heads started referring to the war against terrorism as a “quagmire”. Doubts were raised about the American battle plan, and whether it would ever work. And, of course, the war in Afghanistan was compared with Vietnam -- 7,772 times on television, the radio and in newspapers, according to columnist John Leo. Because there wasn’t a quick and clean victory, many journalists turned pessimistic, and seemed to say there would never be a victory at all.
It’s frightening – although not completely surprising -- that Americans right now seem to trust the government more than they trust journalists. In the Gallup survey mentioned earlier, 72% of respondents said the possibility of the government withholding too much information from the media is not a problem. But 62% think that journalists are providing too much detailed information about American military actions.
The Founding Fathers believed a vigorous and independent press was the best check on government power. They wrote the First Amendment to make sure there would always be a powerful group keeping a wary eye on everything the government did.
For that reason, it’s critical that the media regain the public trust. The way to do that is to do the same thing they were doing in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks: practice pure journalism. Report what’s happening, ask the hard questions and cover the story. Avoid unnecessary hype, sensationalism and punditry. That’s what the American people are demanding, and it’s what they deserve.