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Polls: Most Americans don't trust the media

Brad KnickerbockerThe Christian Science Monitor

To those of us in the news biz, the headline on a new Gallup survey was dispiriting, to say the least: “U.S. Distrust in Media Hits New High.”

“Americans' distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60 percent saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly,” Gallup reported Friday. “Distrust is up from the past few years, when Americans were already more negative about the media than they had been in years prior to 2004.”

That’s a far cry from the 1970s, when Gallup asked the question three times and found trust in the media as high as 72 percent.

It also means that “negativity toward the media is at an all-time high for a presidential election year,” according to Gallup, which is “particularly consequential at a time when Americans need to rely on the media to learn about the platforms and perspectives of the two candidates vying to lead the country for the next four years.”

There’s a definite political tilt to such findings.

Trust in the media – defined as having a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust – is very low among Republicans (26 percent) and Independents (31 percent), considerably higher among Democrats (58 percent). Paradoxically, Republicans are the partisan group most likely to be paying close attention to news about national politics, Gallup finds.

How have things changed since the media’s relative glory days in the 70s and earlier?

Back then, most Americans relied on local newspapers and such much-admired TV broadcasters as Walter Cronkite and Howard K. Smith, whose veracity was rarely questioned. When Mr. Cronkite ended his broadcasts with his signature “and that’s the way it is,” most of us believed him.

Vietnam and Watergate changed that to some extent. (It changed Cronkite, who publicly turned against the Vietnam War.) So did the civil rights movement and the push for gender equality. Establishment thinking and policies came under greater scrutiny, and conventional beliefs were challenged.

Fast-forward to the present, and the source of news (perhaps that should be “news”) has exploded. Many fewer newspapers, but a lot more cable television, radio and TV talk shows, news-based entertainment (Jon Stewart), partisan and ideological web sites, and so many bloggers that it brings to mind the old saw about monkeys and typewriters – what Chris Gaither and Susannah Rosenblatt writing in the Los Angeles Times several technological generations ago (2005) called “the uncensored bastions of ideological chest-thumping.”

Back to that partisan split in perceptions about trust in the media. Are reporters and editors, broadcasters and producers biased in a liberal direction? Is that why Democrats are more likely to trust the press?

That’s certainly the perception among many conservatives. How many times has Sarah Palin decried the “lamestream media?”

The mainstream media these days is nothing if not self-examining.

“When The [New York] Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so,” Arthur Brisbane, the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in his final column last month. “Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism – for lack of a better term – that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.”

“As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects,” Mr. Brisbane wrote.

Except for Fox News, broadcasters generally went nuts over Michele Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, leading Politico’s Jim VandeHei to observe that “the mainstream media tends to be quite smitten with the Obamas.”

But it’s also true that people tend to dwell in the media echo chamber they’re most comfortable with, whether it’s Sean Hannity and Fox News on the right or Rachel Maddow and MSNBC on the left. Fox News drew many more viewers to the Republican National Convention than the other broadcast or cable networks; NBC and MSNBC led the way at the Democratic National Convention.

It’s also true that the tea party movement and social conservatism have had a profound impact on traditional political conservatism, driving a deeper and angrier distrust of conventional media sources.

“I'm undoubtedly a liberal, which means that I'm in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform,” Ms. Maddow quipped in 2010.

Regarding the Gallup survey, Andrew Beaujon of the Poynter Institute (a non-profit school that promotes excellence in journalism) asks: “Is it possible people considering that question disassociate or exempt the media outlets they like (you have to work pretty hard to not find a news organization that skews toward whatever your views are these days) from the ones they distrust?”

Being down on the press has a long history in the United States.

“Newspapers serve as chimneys to carry off noxious vapors and smoke,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to Thaddeus Kosciusko in 1802.

But for many reporters and editors, who tend to be an idealistic lot, the words of the late, great columnist Molly Ivins still ring true:

“I have long been persuaded that the news media collectively will be sent to hell not for our sins of commission, but our sins of omission. The real scandal in the media is not bias, it is laziness. Laziness and bad news judgment. Our failure is what we miss, what we fail to cover, what we let slip by, what we don't give enough attention to.”