Media and the public (dis)trust

Howard Beale: We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymoreEverywhere I turn, I see conferences on saving journalism. There’s talk (again) of a government subsidy to save “newspaper journalism,” whatever that is, and the USC’s “Public Policy & Funding The News” project has published an entire list of ideas that have been brought forward to “save news.” The investigative reporters of the world are the most vocal, insisting that a lone wolf reporter simply cannot do what someone who works for a large, institutional press organization (with lots of lawyers and libel insurance) can do. “The sky is falling” rhetoric is at an all time high, and the decibel level of the blame game is louder than it’s ever been.

Those of you who’ve followed my work know where I stand on all this, but I want to elaborate on something that I first said many years ago. For journalism to function, it must do so with the public’s trust, and we’ve been losing that for decades. So the question to these groups is what exactly is it that are you trying to save (other than your jobs)?

Here’s the latest from Gallup, a company that’s been asking the same question since the early 70s.

Gallup's survey of trust in the press

Take a hard look at that and then go look in the mirror. The notion that we go out the door in the morning to do our jobs carrying the public’s trust on our shoulder is false. It’s bogus. Look at that graph. More people distrust us than trust us, and it’s been that way for a few years. The decline started long ago.

The old definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over only expecting different results. We want to do what we’ve always done, only we want people to love us. The pity party over the decline of the institutional press is pathetic, when we should be staring at that graph and being honest enough to ask ourselves why.

For example, an honest look at history would stop and examine Spiro Agnew’s famous rant against the bias of the television press in 1969. Most people I know dismiss Agnew as a nutcase or a Nixon pawn, but that kind of hubris is exactly our problem in the above graph today. Agnew was a spokesman for Nixon’s “silent majority,” another concept we dismissed as just marketing. Read carefully Agnew’s words in that 1969 speech in Des Moines:

“A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds about the veracity of a public official, or the wisdom of a government policy,” he said. “One Federal Communications Commissioner considers the power of the networks to equal that of local, state, and federal governments combined. Certainly, it represents a concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.”

That power has gone to our heads, and that, too, is reflected in Gallup’s graph, and if we want to do something about it, we’ve got to give up the notion that continuing to do the same things is the solution. Maybe, just maybe, there is truth in Agnew’s words, and the public is responding.

Here’s more from that speech:

“The purpose of my remarks tonight is to focus your attention on this little group of men who…wield a free hand in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues of our nation.

“How is this network news determined? A small group of men, numbering perhaps no more than a dozen “anchormen,” commentators, and executive producers, settle upon the 20 minutes or so of film and commentary that is to reach the public…Their powers of choice are broad. They decide what 40 to 50 million Americans will learn of the day’s events in the nation and the world.

“The American people would rightly not tolerate this kind of concentration of power in government. Is it not fair and relevant to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one, and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government?

“The views of this fraternity do not represent the views of America.”

Those four paragraphs closely resemble a remarkable recent essay by NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of the great minds actually asking the right questions today. If you’ve never read “Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press,” I strongly recommend you do so.

In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized– connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding.

For all of our work — broadcast or print — we continue to underestimate the people who make up our audience. They see through our efforts to be “objective” and they’re, frankly, tired of it. The good old days of absolute institutional power are gone, and journalism will certainly be just fine without it.

I recently wrote about a Dallas sportscaster’s rant against his station for showing the video clip of Dallas Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones — with likely a few beers in him — saying some embarrassing things. The sportscaster said this was exactly what’s wrong with “the news” these days, and then he crossed a major line with me:

Our business now too many times is a fat kid in a T‑shirt in his mother’s basement eating Cheetos and writing his blogs.

Blaming bloggers is the passionate raison d’être of the press these days, because we seem incapable of viewing blogs as a reaction to the above graph rather than a cause. Go back and look. When was the first blog? Late 90s, perhaps? I started blogging in 2002, and I was considered radical at the time. So which came first, the public distrust or blogs? Blogging and the personal media revolution — Jay Rosen’s “Audience Atomization Overcome — are a reaction to the mistrust of the press and certainly not the cause or even a cause.

Again, we simply must get off our collective pedestal, if we are to make a difference in the trade of journalism.

Rather than trying to save something that is lost (the insanity of “saving” the press), we ought to be discussing — with a blank page — how we can provide a news and information service that the public will trust. Here’s a tip: they will be a part of it.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

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