The hidden bias of elitism in the press

You can’t call people smart and stupid in the same breath and hope to get away with it. Yet that’s exactly what San Antonio News-Express writer Michelle Koidin Jaffee has accidentally done in a piece headlined: Today’s media trying to hear irked readers.

(Disclaimer: The following is an attempt to use Michelle’s article as illustrative of the problem about which she writes, not a desire to embarrass her or otherwise criticize the style or prose with which she presents the story.)

The story is about a gathering of journalism educators in San Antonio and the matter of restoring trust. The meme being pushed here is that newspapers need to get away from entertainment and sensationalism and back to hard journalism.

Okay, all of this is fine, and I think it’s important for people to talk about trust and journalism. Personally, I think “the public trust” is an illusion that the professional press uses to validate their elevated status in the culture, and I’m not sure it was ever really there. But I digress.

In the article, the writer makes this important and stingingly accurate observation:

So what to do now?

Journalists must start in their own communities.

They must give the statements of readers experiencing issues as much weight as oft-quoted experts and officials, said Cole Campbell, journalism dean at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“The first step is be a lot humbler than we’re used to being and acknowledge we know less than the people we serve,” Campbell said.

Journalists must convey the message: “We honor your intelligence. We recognize you all know something about this.”

This strikes at the heart of J.D. Lasica’s “personal media revolution” and is THE perfect place for contemporary journalism to begin discussing what to do. But the acknowledgement that people (the readers) are smart flies in the face of the published views of the father of professional journalism, Walter Lippmann. He and his cronies felt the opposite about people, which is why they birthed the era of the professional “expert” in the first place.

This is a hidden bias in the professional press, and one they cannot allow themselves to see. Witness the “essential question” that the reporter poses for this group of journalism educators:

How can the mainstream media win back the trust of people…in a technological age that offers no shortage of cable TV channels or Internet blogs where people can see only their own views reflected if they wish?
Do you see it? The value judgment about people we’re trying to reach?

Here’s the interpretation: People are so caught up in the echo chambers of their own beliefs that they need journalists to break them free. I’m smart; you’re stupid or ignorant or both, because, after all, nobody with an ounce of intelligence would wish to pursue only their own views. How do you get from “our audience knows more than we do” to “we’ve got to protect them from their own views?” You don’t.

This is an insidious evil that blocks progress in the attempts of mainstream media to connect with the people they so badly want to serve. After all, how do you connect with folks that you deem less than you…locked in their own stupidity…caught up in their own beliefs and views?

Lippmann saw the same thing — people falling for what he felt were myth and symbolism — and deemed it his responsibility, and by proxy, all of professional journalism, to set the record straight. In so doing, he lifted himself above the people, and therein lies the rub.

I’m encouraged that many hard core professional types are beginning to acknowledge that everyday people may actually know more than they do. Ultimately, that has to pay off, but I do think the road between here and there is going to be a bumpy one.

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