Ten weeks ago, writing in the British magazine The Spectator, respected historian Paul Johnson lamented the “huge change in the public perception of those who bring us news and views.”
In earlier times, wrote Johnson--the author of “Modern Times"--the news media were widely regarded as “beacons of enlightenment and progress . . . generally identified with knowledge and improvement, helping to . . . produce a responsible citizenry.”
Today, Johnson said, “the general view of the media is almost entirely negative: It is associated with ignorance, lies, malicious invention and scurrility.”
“Most people despise the media.”
Although Johnson was writing primarily about attitudes toward the media in England, much of what he says--while perhaps a bit overstated--also applies to the growing public skepticism and hostility toward news media in the United States.
Indeed, Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN, closely echoed Johnson in an interview with The Times two weeks after Johnson’s comments were published. When Turner began his journalistic career 35 years ago, he said, “we were then highly regarded. We were looked up to. We were the subjects of admiration, sometimes even awe.”
“Now we are often despised.”
Times interviews with more than 65 other print and broadcast journalists and with a variety of sociologists, psychologists and communications scholars in recent months confirm what a Times poll conducted March 3 to 6 and published today on Page A16 clearly shows:
Public confidence in and respect for the news media are seriously eroding.
Although the Times Poll showed that 88% of the American public still say that the news media, overall, do a “good” job, only 17% say the media do a “very good” job--down from 30% in a 1985 Times poll; 11% say they do a “bad” job--up from the 4% “bad” rating the media received in 1985.
Significantly, 40% of poll respondents--and 51% of those age 45 to 64--say they have less confidence in the news media now than when they first began paying attention to news and current events. When asked open-ended questions about their complaints, more cited “bias” and “sensationalism, hyping the news” than anything else.
“There is no question that the general public is far more disenchanted with the media in general--and has been for the last several years--than at any time in my memory,” says Allen Neuharth, founder of USA Today and chairman of the Freedom Foundation.
In the Times poll, respondents were critical of a whole range of media practices:
* 67% agreed with the statement, “The news media give more coverage to stories that support their own point of view than to those that don’t.”
* 65% said, “The press looks out mainly for powerful people.”
* 58% said, “Most news reporters are just concerned about getting a good story, and they don’t worry very much about hurting people;”
* 63% said the news media “reveal too much about the private lives of public figures.”
* 64% said the news media “put too much emphasis on negative news.”
* 49% said headlines in the newspaper they most often read are “sensational and inaccurate.”
Some in the media say the public has always been critical of the press; the apparent increase in that antagonism today, they say, is simply the inevitable byproduct of a divisive presidential election campaign. But there is widespread evidence that the problem cannot be dismissed so easily.
Nationwide polls conducted by the Gallup, Harris and Yankelovich organizations have all shown a similar decline in public confidence in the news media over a number of years, and interviews conducted with journalists in preparation for the recent Times poll repeatedly yielded similar criticisms--and, for many, an acute and unhappy awareness of the diminished public standing of the news media today.
Some journalists say there is actually less public hostility directed toward the news media now than in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when reporters covered the Vietnam War and other social and political upheavals that bitterly divided the country.
“People were so rocked by what was going on within their families and in their communities . . . and sometimes I think that we were giving it an exaggerated amount of attention,” says Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor for the “NBC Nightly News.” “They were very unhappy with us that we seemed to be endorsing some of those positions.”
Moreover, says Dan Rather, Brokaw’s counterpart at the “CBS Evening News,” there is “some danger . . . in (being) sucked into believing that it is our job to be popular.”
“We all understand that you want to sell newspapers (and) I want people to watch CBS news programs, but it’s worth remembering that if you do your job as a conscientious professional journalist . . . you are going to have to ask unpopular questions, you are going to have to report on stories that a lot of people don’t particularly want to see or hear.
“I think the soul, the very core, of . . . a journalist is to understand that that’s his duty. I hear an awful lot of talk about popularity in journalism these days and not quite enough talk about duty.”
Some journalists wear their unpopularity as a badge of courage--and of pride.
“I know we’re doing a better job . . . than when I broke in because we’re so unpopular,” says James Reston, the longtime columnist for the New York Times.
But there’s a big difference between popularity and credibility, between being liked and being respected--between public affection and public confidence; what the polls show is that public confidence in and respect for the media’s credibility have been in a long-term decline.
Yes, the media were reviled by some in the late 1960s and 1970s, but they recovered with their coverage of Watergate and its aftermath in the mid-1970s, when they achieved “perhaps the best standing of the press in my experience,” Rather says.
Since then, it has been mostly downhill--and the biggest reason, say many in the media and the public alike, is a widespread perception of bias.
“I’m on the speaking circuit . . . journalism schools, university campuses, everything from furniture manufacturers and sellers to accountants, meatpackers . . . and without an exception, the thing that those people want to complain about or talk about or argue about is the bias of the media,” Neuharth says.
Most in the media vigorously deny they are biased.
“One of the pieces of the conventional wisdom these days is that we used to be objective and now we’re not,” says Geneva Overholser, editor of the Des Moines Register. “I reject that emphatically. I think the people who are saying that aren’t looking at the ‘used to be.’ I also think that they tend to be responding to very successful manipulation of public opinion about the media by . . . politicians.”
Attacks on the media by conservative members and supporters of the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush created an erroneous perception that the news media were “a room full of left-wing zealots,” says Gregory Favre, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee.
Some journalists may have contributed to that perception in recent years, in part by their increasing appearances on television talk shows and entertainment programs, where they express personal points of view. Even if most of these journalists are columnists and commentators who are expected to express opinions, many viewers may not make the distinction between them and straight news reporters who are expected to write facts, not opinion.
Moreover, many reporters did feel “an unusual warmth” for candidate Bill Clinton, in the words of William Henry of Time magazine; some reporters also felt “condescension and contempt” for President Bush, says James Gerstenzang, who covered the White House for the Los Angeles Times during parts of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Joann Byrd, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, has written that in the 73 days preceding Election Day, 58% of the Post’s Page 1 stories and headlines on President Bush were negative, compared to 28% negative for Clinton. After the election, USA Today, among others, headlined Clinton’s victory as a “landslide”; but no major newspaper headlines had characterized Bush’s 1988 victory as a “landslide,” even though he won 15% more electoral votes--and a 25% greater share of the popular vote--than Clinton did in 1992.
Although polls have repeatedly shown that most in the news media are considerably more liberal in their views than are most other Americans, journalists insist they work very hard--and usually successfully--to prevent their personal views from unfairly influencing their coverage.
After all, they point out, they were rough on candidate Clinton in the course of controversies over his alleged extramarital affairs, marijuana smoking, draft avoidance and various conflict-of-interest charges arising from his gubernatorial years in Arkansas. They were also very critical of his early performance in the White House, too much so, many thought--"a rush to judgment . . . within hours of his taking office,” in the words of Michael Schudsen, a professor of communications and sociology at UC San Diego.
Charges of a liberal bias in the media are not new, of course. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, made the same accusations 20 years ago.
Ironically, in the decades before Agnew, the press was widely criticized for being too conservative, for serving as a defender of the Establishment.
Most newspapers in this country were once blatantly partisan, in fact--as most newspapers in Western Europe still are. It was not until this century that narrow partisanship began to decline and objectivity became the journalistic order of the day.
At some newspapers, partisanship endured well into the 20th Century. The Los Angeles Times often functioned as the mouthpiece of the Republican Party as late as the 1950s; Jane Healey, managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel, says that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, her newspaper was known--"with some justification"--as “The Slantinel” because “the guy who owned us (then) . . . sometimes slanted the news.”
Although both the Sentinel and The Times now pride themselves on being both evenhanded and independent, it is clear that many in the public think the news media in general are more “slanted"--more biased, less fair--than at any time in their memory.
Some journalists agree.
“Along the way, we’ve lost some of the separation between what is commentary and what is news reporting,” says Michael Fancher, executive editor of the Seattle Times. “That drives some of the skepticism. . . . People are quicker to assume that you have some hidden agenda.”
Van Gordon Sauter, former president of CBS News and now president of Fox News, says the news media have become “a tremendous advocacy” group.
“Look at Newsweek magazine. Look at Time magazine. The subjectivity that just runs through them I find absolutely stunning. If you look at the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post . . . the liberalism of those papers manifests itself in their news columns, not just on their editorial pages.”
Sauter is equally critical of the major television networks (except CNN, which he says is still “a relatively objective news source”).
Executives at all these (and other) major news media deny that their news coverage is subjective or unfairly influenced by the opinions of their reporters and editors. But more than 40% of the people in the recent Times poll said newspapers do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion, and a similar percentage made the same criticism of television news; 67% agreed with the statement, “The news media give more coverage to stories that support their own point of view than to those that don’t.”
“They cover the worldly things much more than they cover solid family things,” Judith Hill, a supervising nurse at a nursing home in Riverton, Wyo., said in a follow-up interview with a Times reporter a week after participating in the Times poll. “They’re very anti-Christian. . . . The cult in Waco gets big headlines, but otherwise they . . . (downplay) Christianity.”
Contrary to what many conservatives argue, however, most criticisms of bias and complaints about a blurring of news and opinion in the media do not appear to be essentially ideological in origin.
Neuharth confirms what many respondents in the recent Times poll said in follow-up interviews--that the bias, as Neuharth puts it, “has some but not much to do with political campaigns. . . . Generally, it pertains more to basic fairness than to ideology.
“There’s just a strong feeling that the media, particularly the national media, are not fair.”
In the Times poll, fewer than 25% of the respondents said the media generally do a “very good” job in presenting the news fairly and impartially. Newspapers fared least well of the major media on this question; 29% of the people said newspapers were either “fairly bad” or “very bad” in terms of fairness and impartiality.
Many newspaper editors say the perception of bias in their publications may derive in large measure from changes in the way they cover the news now that television has largely replaced newspapers as the primary source of breaking news. With television providing immediacy and drama--the first words and most riveting pictures on an earthquake, a riot, an election return, a baseball game--newspapers have increasingly had to tell their readers what a given event means, how and why it happened, what’s likely to happen next.
Providing “more sophisticated explanatory journalism . . . more analysis, synthesis, perspective in news stories . . . that’s our distinctive strength over the other media,” says Maxwell King, executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But trying to do that and simultaneously trying to “keep opinion out” is a constant “tug of war,” King says.
The line between analytical/interpretive reporting and outright commentary or opinion may blur at times, especially in the minds of some readers. “That sometimes contributes to the perception of bias,” says Peter Prichard, editor of USA Today.
But in our increasingly complex society, television also tries to go beyond a “just the facts, ma’m” approach, and viewers often see these analyses as biased too.
“I wish they would just report the facts and stick to the facts and not give the reporter’s opinion of what someone meant after I’ve just sat and heard for myself what the man said,” is the way Mary, a 41-year-old bookkeeper in Raceland, Ky., put it in a follow-up interview after participating in the Times poll.
CNN has had the highest believability rating in several recent polls--including last month’s survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press--and Tom Johnson, president of CNN, is convinced that the primary reason for that is CNN’s determinedly evenhanded approach to the news.
There’s “a perception at times” that the other networks are “leaning” one way or the other on a story, he says. “We do not editorialize.”
To many in the general public, an overemphasis on “negative” news is a critical component of “editorializing” and of the whole unfairness/bias issue that leaves them so dissatisfied with the news media.
Journalists argue that it isn’t their fault that so much of the news is bad; they say it’s their job--their obligation--to tell readers and viewers about the declining economy, corruption in City Hall, waste in the Pentagon, and dishonesty and duplicity on the campaign trail.
“People who sometimes bring you--as reader, as viewer--the bad news . . . who ask the hard questions, tell the city that it’s not working as well as it thought it was” are often resented and unfairly criticized for being “too negative” or “biased,” says Shelby Coffey, editor of The Times.
Like the ancient Greeks, who frequently killed the messengers who brought them bad news, many in the public want to punish the news media for bringing them bad news.
But the media must share the responsibility for this syndrome.
“The news was much more upbeat in the 1940s and 1950s when (the) nation’s political leaders were treated by the journalists with deference and respect,” says Ellen Hume, executive director of the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
“What changed everything were the lies of Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Iran/Contra s candal and Iraqgate,” Hume said in a speech last December at the University of Texas. “Now journalists are locked into the negative assumption that the government and political leaders are lying much of the time.”
This dramatic transition from lap dog to watchdog to pit bull has created the phenomenon of “gotcha” journalism, what Hume calls a “constantly cynical framework (that) doubtlessly feeds the public’s cynicism and distrust of its political leadership--and of the piranha press corps which seems willing to devour anyone, at any time, for frivolous infractions as well as for serious ones.”
This has led, over time, to both diminished confidence in the media and diminished voter turnout at the polls.
The public’s resentment of the media’s knee-jerk skepticism is compounded by its sense that the media increasingly sensationalize their reporting, making mountains of corruption out of every molehill of indiscretion, giving big headlines and big chunks of air time to “scandals” that are more titillating than significant.
Did Clinton smoke marijuana? Did he inhale? Did he evade the draft? Did he have an affair with Gennifer Flowers?
The only thing the public learned from all the media coverage of Clinton and Flowers is that “Gennifer is spelled with a G, and that wasn’t really a terribly useful piece of information in terms of making a decision in the election,” says Maxwell McCombs, a professor of communications at the University of Texas.
Just as public opinion polls in 1988 showed that 70% of the people thought the media paid too much attention to Sen. Gary Hart’s sex life, so a 1992 poll in Texas--home state of both George Bush and Ross Perot--showed that 69% of the voters thought the media paid too much attention to Clinton’s sex life.
As Peter Jennings, anchor of “ABC’s World News Tonight,” put it, “While we were all trying to run Bill Clinton to the ground on the subject of Gennifer Flowers, the voters in New Hampshire wanted to know about the economy. And we were getting in their way.”
In the second presidential debate, two members of the audience complained about the amount of time spent “trashing” the candidates’ character and focusing on “the personalities and the mud,” instead of “the genuine complexity and difficulty of the issues.”
The news media’s treatment of a speech by then Vice President Dan Quayle last May is a typical example of that tendency. Quayle spoke for 33 minutes on the importance of family values, but the media focused on a single sentence in which he criticized the decision of an unmarried television character, Murphy Brown, to give birth to a child.
The ensuing controversy so dominated the media that when President Bush and Brian Mulroney, the Canadian prime minister, tried to discuss international trade issues during a news conference at the White House, reporters shouted Murphy Brown questions instead. Exasperated, Bush finally replied, then turned to Mulroney and said, “I told you what the issue was. You thought I was kidding.”
Television seems especially susceptible to trivializing the news, to replacing substance with sensationalism, in large part because of what Jeff Wald, news director of KCOP Channel 13, calls TV’s “overzealous desire to make news departments profit centers.”
Peter Johnson in The Times’ editorial library assisted with the research on this story.
Quick, flashy stories often draw the big ratings necessary for those profits.
This approach has led to such embarrassments as the recent disclosure that NBC rigged the crash of a General Motors pickup truck.
Moreover, Wald says, “television has this wonderful ability to throw pictures into the home almost . . . instantaneously.” But first reports are often unreliable and inaccurate; by “going live for the sake of going live,” he says, television frequently passes along information that misinforms the public and undermines the media’s credibility.
For journalists, there has always been a tension between getting it first and getting it right. That tension has been exacerbated in recent years by three factors:
* Technological innovations--computers, fax machines, minicams, cable television, satellite dishes--have greatly increased the speed with which the media can report the news.
* The audience for traditional media outlets has been declining steadily. According to the National Opinion Research Center, the number of people who read a newspaper every day has dropped from 73% of the American public to 51% over the past 25 years. Over the same period, according to Nielsen Media Research, the percentage of people who watch the evening network news shows has dropped from 56% to 31%.
* The number of media outlets competing for this audience has grown exponentially. Cable TV channels. Radio and TV talk shows. Computerized information services. Specialty magazines. Tabloid television. Newsletters.
All these have magnified both the journalist’s natural competitive instinct and the media bosses’ anxieties about bottom-line profits. Result: Attention-getting stories--over-simplified, sensationalized, trivial, inaccurate, negative stories--often dominate the news; stories harp on conflict to the point of polarization; people come to think that the media will “do anything,” no matter how base or how hurtful, just to get a story--to get readers, viewers, ratings.
Indeed, in the recent Times poll, 58% of the people agreed with the statement, “Most news reporters are just concerned about getting a good story, and they don’t worry a very much about hurting people.”
But Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and a former editor at the New York Times and the Atlanta Constitution, says, “People have always been angry, upset, frustrated, disappointed with the press; the explosion, the proliferation . . . of outlets for news and information . . . has simply magnified everything,” given people more media targets to be mad at, Kovach says.
Roger Fransecki, a Los Angeles psychologist and media consultant, says the media now so “saturate every element of our life (that) . . . we feel powerless, overwhelmed by . . . this vast, phosphorescent Mississippi of the senses.”
Several journalists say this media “explosion” has had another effect, one similar to the effect of expansion on major league baseball.
“When I grew up, there were eight baseball teams” in each league, 25 players on a roster--400 players total, says Rick Feldman, general manager at KCOP Channel 13. Fans got “really excited” when at least half these players came to bat because they were “professional baseball players.”
Now there are 14 teams in each league. “Collectively, you still have 200 good ballplayers, but now you also have . . . (500) stinkers,” Feldman says. In the expanded news media, as in expansion baseball, “there’s just not enough talent to go around.”
When the effects of the “stinker” phenomenon are combined with the cutbacks in budgets and staffing that many news organization have implemented in response to intensifying economic pressures, many news organizations may wind up with too few qualified, experienced people to do their job properly.
Many good, veteran journalists have either been fired or have opted for early retirement at major news organizations in recent years, Feldman notes, and they have either been replaced by “less experienced . . . people who are not as professional” or they haven’t been replaced at all.
These cutbacks have hit everyone in the media--network news, local TV news, big newspapers, small newspapers, good news organizations, bad news organizations.
At the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has won more Pulitzer Prizes over the past eight years than any other paper, the number of copy desk editors--the editors who read every story before publication to check for accuracy, fairness, consistency, tone, language usage and style--has declined more than 10%, from 80 to 70, in the last four years through attrition induced by the recession.
“Fairness and accuracy are probably the two most critical ways in which we earn the confidence and the trust of readers,” says Maxwell King, executive editor of the Inquirer. But with this cutback, “we’re not able to do quite as careful and fair a job as we did before.”
“That hurts us, and that’s happened at newspapers all around the country.”
King is right. At the Los Angeles Times, in the same four-year period, the number of copy desk editors has also dropped more than 10%, from 125 to 108.
But the concept of “careful and fair” at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times is considerably different from that, say, at the National Enquirer and “Hard Copy.” Standards vary considerably in the news media, in fact, and just speaking of “the media” as one vast monolith can be misleading. There are many media, and some journalists worry that the more responsible elements of the print and broadcast media have lost credibility because of the sins of the supermarket tabloids and some quasi-news programs on television.
Peter Johnson in The Times’ editorial library assisted with the research on this story.
“I don’t know anyone who trusts the media anymore.”
Judith Hill, 43, supervising nurse, Riverton, Wyo.
“The media abuse their freedom sometimes, but it’s important that they have it”
Patty Chaney, 36, laborer, Shelbyville, Ind.
“They cover stories that they tend to agree with--especially the headline stories. The stuff that makes the headlines is the stuff they have an opinon on, one way or another.”
David Stricker, 31, automotive technician, Lake Anne, Mich.
“There’s a tendency to needlessly dredge up dirty laundry on people, even when it has no relevance to the issue at hand.”
Michael Rondeau, 27, certified public accountant, Saranac Lake, N.Y.
“Sensationalism detracts from the story. You try to build up the story to more than what actually took place--not necessarily lying but using adjectives.”
Loren Tesch, 35, police officer, Chadron, Neb.