What really started the decline in press trust?

Keith OlbermannKeith Olbermann will be back on the air tonight after the pseudo-suspension by MSBNC for making campaign contributions without asking first. The Olbermann case has stirred up lots of healthy discussion over that favorite concept of mind: objectivity, but I’m concerned that otherwise intelligent people are making imprecise judgments based on a false reading of history.

In a CNN opinion piece, for example, John P Avlon wrote that we’re living in a “hyperpartisan media” marketplace today.

The ideal of independence is being degraded by the proliferation of partisan media. The fact that undisclosed donations by opinion anchors like Olbermann are being defended is evidence of how far off course we’ve gotten. The lines between political and media figures are blurring; we are getting used to journalists functioning as party apologists while elected officials sound increasingly like radio talk show hosts.

Avlon’s piece is a logical read, but his blaming of this hyperpartisan media marketplace for the loss of trust expressed in a Pew study to which he refers is not factual. In reality, he’s practicing one of the things he rails against — that weary saying of late attributed to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”

The truth, according to the folks at Gallup, who’ve been following this since 1973, is that trust in the press began its decline in 1976. It has sharply declined ever since until today, 57% of Americans have little or no trust in the press to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” So a full 20 years prior to the Internet or Fox News, trust in the press began its slide. Therefore, today’s “hyperpartisan media” is a reaction to the decline, not the cause or even “a” cause.

So what happened in the early 70s that began this slide? Why don’t we talk about that? I’ve never fully explained my feelings on this, but here goes.

The press changed forever during and in the wake of Watergate. Never before had the press “brought down” a sitting President of the United States. The Washington Post did this through an FBI source that we now know had an agenda. It was the pinnacle of professional journalism and spawned a whole new genre known as the “investigative reporter,” a redundant term if there ever was one. It also spawned the age of the celebrity journalist, because Woodward and Bernstein are enshrined forever as sterling examples of what to emulate in the world of professional journalism.

But nobody asked the American public — that relentless cultural governor that we enjoy — if this was all right with them. Maybe the idea that a small group of people with the power to take down a sitting President wasn’t or isn’t to their liking. Perhaps it’s not so good for democracy. As the political sands shift back and forth in our culture — because the people don’t want too much power given to one point-of-view — perhaps the American public made a judgment about us, that we’d grown to big for our britches, and so they began pulling away.

There’s also the (I believe accurate) view that it was a liberal press that brought down a conservative President, and so the act stunk of politics from the get-go. Remember Agnew’s speech of 1969? Like it or not, it spoke to a lot of people.

Perhaps people looked at Watergate and said, “You know, they say they’re agenda-less, but that’s not what we see here.” Perhaps they began looking for other sources, and THAT is what led to not only Fox news but many who took to the Web to offer a different perspective later on. In the early 80s, I was a part of one such attempt, CBN News under Pat Robertson. I can’t begin to count the number of people who thanked us for not marching in lock-step with the traditional press, so I have first-hand knowledge that everything was not hunky-dory in the wake of Watergate.

I learned that when somebody from “the press” says you’re biased, it really means that you don’t embrace their narrative. This narrative originates from a group-think that is wrapped in the clothing of the group it represents, and it doesn’t necessarily speak on behalf of the people of the United States. This, I think, is what people began to recognize after Watergate, and it’s the fuel that powers at least some of the media revolution that Avlon and so many others find unacceptable today.

We’ll never get very far in the discussion about journalism today until the traditionalists get off their “I’m right and you’re wrong” pedestal. Moreover, the use of condescending mockery to decline participation in the discussion is leading many into a trap that only benefits the challengers.

These are interesting times indeed.


  1. i thought people began to question media’s “set of facts” way back when the public was sold a lone gunman with a .22 rifle perched high in a dallas building took out one of their most admired presidents.


  1. […] But, there’s another huge problem with this, and that is the tangible way it supports the idea of celebrity journalism. I wrote of this in 2010. […]

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