Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Media Took a Beating in the Election

Media squander public trust by playing politics

Even before we knew who won the election, we knew who lost it: the media.
And the race wasn't close.

News organizations of every stripe and type took a beating in the campaign
of 2004. Mostly, they earned it, with the result being the clock has been
turned back on decades of progress in standards and fairness. Trust in the
media is at an all-time low.

Screwups were a big part of the story, the lowlight being CBS News'
September "scoop" on favored treatment given to George W. Bush 30 years
ago in the National Guard. Shockingly, CBS still has not come clean about
the blunders of Rathergate. It outsourced its ethics probe and has yet to
hold anyone accountable.

But bat-blind mistakes like that are only the most obvious signs of a
deeper problem. The heart of the matter is trust - and how it is being
squandered.

The search for facts, facts, facts is seen as time-consuming and quaint.
Attitude and advocacy are the new currency. It's as though the
partisanship of the candidates has seeped into the bloodstream of
journalism, with many news organizations taking on the coloring of one of
the political parties.

If you doubt that, look at the media the way the parties do. They know
where their bread is buttered. That's why Bush gave one of his few long
interviews to Bill O'Reilly on Fox News. It's why CNN was the only
organization to have a prime interview space on the floor of the
Democratic convention in Boston.

So the next time somebody says Fox is pro-GOP, say, yeah, that's true -
then suggest a new name for CNN. Call it DNN - the Democratic News
Network. After all, DNN has two advisers to John Kerry on its payroll -
James Carville and Paul Begala.

Whatever your politics, though, take no comfort in the fact that Fox and
CNN cancel each other out. For they both cancel out trust. It is a
setback, not progress, that viewers can pick their cable channel on the
basis of political preferences.

Many newspapers are taking the same wrong turn, providing comfort food for
the committed instead of facts to the curious. Apart from abdicating their
responsibilities to play it straight, they're also being shortsighted.
Once readers and viewers stop agreeing with a paper's politics, they will
look elsewhere for news.

It wasn't always like that. As recently as 1976, a Gallup survey found
that seven of 10 Americans trusted news organizations. A survey this year
by the Pew Research Center found that 53% of Americans do not trust them,
seeing the media as "self-centered and self-promoting."

That's a major falloff, and I bet next year's survey will find even lower
numbers.

Advocacy, either real or perceived, is a big part of the problem. The
liberal, big-government view still dominates the major media, which is why
Kerry got more newspaper endorsements than Bush. But endorsements on
editorial pages and signed columns, like this one, are supposed to express
the writers' opinions.

What critics and some readers suspect is that many of the same papers that
endorsed Kerry tilted their news coverage toward him, too. The New York
Times, my alma mater, is Exhibit A. Even its own in-house critic called it
"a liberal newspaper" whose supposedly unbiased news pages "present the
social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches
cheerleading."

Such honesty is refreshing. Other editors are struggling with the issue,
too, sometimes twisting themselves in knots in the process. The Albany
Times-Union, a Hearst newspaper, tried to deflect attacks of partisanship
by putting a big picture of Bush on page 1 for half of a day's run, and a
picture of Kerry in the same spot for the other half. Editor Rex Smith
later regretted the experiment, saying he had been wrong to abandon his
news judgment.

Alas, he could have found a solution the old-fashioned way, simply by
adopting the standard for fairness set long ago by one of the giants of
journalism.

A.M. Rosenthal, for many years the boss of The Times, was a fierce figure
in the newsroom. But he had a seemingly simple goal for news coverage, one
he wants as his epitaph: "He kept the paper straight."

To judge from the evidence of 2004, too few journalists share that goal.
That's not just the media's loss. It's America's, too.

Originally published on November 3, 2004