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Media Credibility Gap

January 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: CBS News made headlines Monday in the worst way: Reporting on the results of an independent panel’s investigation of its flawed 60 Minutes report on President Bush’s National Guard record. The controversy was only the latest in a series of high-profile embarrassments for national news organizations.

Last spring, USA Today dismissed its star foreign correspondent, Jack Kelley, after finding that he had fabricated stories. A year earlier, the New York Times underwent a top-to-bottom shakeup when it was disclosed that reporter Jayson Blair had plagiarized and invented many of his articles.

SPOKESMAN: The defectors were Tailwind’s objective.

TERENCE SMITH: In 1998, CNN was forced to retract its Tailwind report charging that the United States had used nerve gas against its own defectors during the Vietnam War. And that is just a partial list.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining us now to discuss the impact of these serial media failures are: Ken Auletta, media writer for the New Yorker; Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center; Michael Massing, media analyst and author of the recently published “Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq;” and Nancy Maynard, former newspaper publisher, journalist and media analyst. Welcome to you all.

Andy Kohut, start us off with some numbers based on your surveys, if you will. What impact do incidents like these, CBS, New York Times, USA Today, CNN, what impact do they have on the public perception and the credibility of the media?

ANDREW KOHUT: Unfortunately, Terry, they add fuel to a fire that’s been burning for a long time. Eroding press credibility, believability has been a fact of life over the past decade and a half, two decades.

When we first started our People in the Press series, we asked people, a representative sample: Does the media usually get the facts straight, or do they often get it wrong? And we found, I think we have a slide on this, we found 55 percent then saying that media usually gets the story right. The 55 percent was defined as a very low number and it was a shockingly low number. But over the years, that number has gotten lower and lower.

And at this point in time, we have a majority of people saying the media usually gets it wrong, and only 36 percent saying the media usually gets it — the facts straight. Now, this is not an isolated set of findings. We have question after question showing fewer people believing what they read, what they hear and what they see in the news media.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Auletta, I wonder what you think contributes to this slide in credibility and believability.

KEN AULETTA: Oh, I think a lot of things. I don’t think there’s any one answer to that question, Terry. I mean, I think CBS made a mistake. The New York Times made a mistake. USA Today made a mistake. And in most cases when the press makes a mistake, they’re very slow to admit it. And they actually tend to blame someone else for making a mistake.

Secondly, I think if you watch, say cable television, you see reporters moving out of their normal job as reporters to become what I would call bloviators, and so what you have is people watching them and saying, wait a second, they’re not reporters, they’re just expressing opinions, so how can I trust them?

Then you’ve got Fox News, which is admittedly more partisan or perceived as more partisan, and so people then start to say, hey, wait a second, they’re all partisan.

And then you’ve got people taking money from the U.S. Department of Education as columnists without telling the public, and you’ve got the press not agreeing to be as transparent as we want businesses to be and say where we get our money from, where we do our lecture fees. And so I think all of those things and more contribute.

TERENCE SMITH: So Nancy Maynard, if all of these things do accumulate, as Ken Auletta is suggesting, how serious a problem is this for news organizations in terms of their credibility?

NANCY MAYNARD: I think it is a problem, but I think it’s a complicated problem. Part of it is the public doesn’t believe what we write and broadcast a lot of the time. I think the mistakes that show up and the big scandals just underscore and prove their thinking, so it makes them cynical.

Older viewers who — looking and reading for years and years and years, it makes them sad. But there are so many sources now of news, and the public is taking control of its information in ways that was not possible in the past.

And it’s a combination of the public’s ability to do it themselves plus their heroes in essence not measuring up — is creating a fairly large problem to what is an institution that many of us love, but a lot of the public does not respect them quite the way that we do.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael Massing, do you think the news organizations get it? I mean, you have written that they’re somewhat out of touch, that journalists are out of touch with ordinary Americans and the people that they’re writing for or broadcasting to.

MICHAEL MASSING (network audio difficulty): Yeah. I think that’s really a major point that we need to — to not get lost in the debate over these problems. You know, there’s a discussion are the media left, are they right, you can find grist for both those mills.

But I think the fact that the media are an elite — that they are a very – a group of reporters, as Ken Auletta is saying, they – now they bloviate, they seem like they’re very self-important, and they’re not getting out I think enough into the country. This election, I think, came as a huge blow to the media’s credibility, as well. They were taken tremendously by surprise, and I’ve really been surprised at how thin the analysis since then is. What happened, the whole moral values question?

There’s been a lot of pooh-poohing of it. But even that is done from the areas of New York and Washington. I really think the media have got to deal with this issue that they are perceived as an elite. That’s not just a political charge. I think that that is a problem that is structural that needs to be contended with.

TERENCE SMITH: Andy Kohut, what do your surveys tell you about the point that’s been raised here about political bias, and whether this was any, for example, in the CBS case, the 60 Minutes case — that issue was raised. Was it politically motivated, the piece that was so critical of President Bush? What does the public think?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I’m going to say what I said earlier. More of the same — we see a long-term trend in the percentage of people thinking that the media is politically biased. Back in the 1988 campaign, 58 percent said there was no media bias in the reporting.

That number slowly slipped down over the course of the ’90s. We got to this campaign. It was only 38 percent, both Republicans and Democrats increasingly critical and skeptical about how fairly the media is doing campaign coverage.

Some of it probably relates to what Ken is talking about. Most people are getting their news –political news from cable television. There is this mixture in cable television of reporting and shout shows and commentary shows, and the public doesn’t make distinctions between the news shows and the commentary shows. They see it as one — one thing.

TERENCE SMITH: Ken Auletta, you mentioned before what could be called the Fox effect. Has it had an effect throughout the industry, or it is singular at Fox or cable?

KEN AULETTA: I don’t want to put too much pressure on Fox in this because I think it extends way beyond Fox, but I think they do mix, as does CNN very often, though to a lesser extent, as Andy said, the commentator with the reporter. But I think there is a fundamental issue here. Excuse me, I have an echo with this. (removing earpiece) Now I can talk.

What they do, it seems to me, is the reporter is supposed to be humble; a reporter is supposed to ask questions and not be a know-it-all. And, increasingly, when you watch television, including the networks, and including if you watch reporters from the New York Times or elsewhere appear on television, they have this compulsion to express an opinion, to tell you what’s going to happen.

In the election year, as Michael said, we don’t go out and report enough. What we do is we appear on television and tell you who is going to win the caucuses in Iowa. We don’t know the answer to that question. And when was the last time you heard a reporter say, “I don’t know”? You don’t hear it enough anymore. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we are perceived as arrogant.

TERENCE SMITH: Nancy Maynard, I wonder if Ken Auletta is right, that so many things get mixed-in here — he cited the case this week it was learned that the government had paid a quarter of a million dollars to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams in order to promote basically its “no child left behind” legislation.

He took that money and did so. Now, he may not call himself a journalist, but what’s the public… what do they think, do they tend to mix it all together, or do they separate out the commentator, let’s say, from the reporter?

NANCY MAYNARD: I think they do tend to mix it up together. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. It’s all there in the same box in the same way, and it looks like the same thing, although we know it’s different.

But the one piece that I think different from — from Ken on this, is while the reporters are yammering and talking, often not knowing what they’re talking about, what we’re not hearing is clarion leadership in the industry. We’re not seeing the boldness of publishers and broadcasters of years before who are willing to stick their necks out and say, this is wrong.

That’s what happened in Watergate. That’s what happened with the Pentagon Papers. That’s what happened in segregation. It’s not happening now. It’s not happening with the war in Iraq to the degree that there are broadcasters or publishers who believe that the United States policy is misfounded. They don’t have the courage of their conviction. I think that that more than anything else is causing us problems with the public.

KEN AULETTA: Nancy, we don’t have a difference on that.

NANCY MAYNARD: Okay. I’m glad to hear that

TERENCE SMITH: Go ahead, Ken.

KEN AULETTA: End of spiel.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael Massing, the title of your book, “Now They Tell Us,” Iraq and the war and the press is… what’s your message there, that the news organizations fell down on it in the run-up to the war, and is that part of the credibility gap that you’re talking about?

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, that’s part of the credibility gap among people who have been opposed to the war. I tried to show that in the eight or nine months leading up to the war, there is a sort of complete, not complete, but general capitulation of the media to the administration, and this is another issue that in terms of press performance it often gets lost.

I mean, it’s sort of the relationship of the press to people in power. You know, one thing, when the press does do its job, when it stands up there and it questions the president like it should or it shows that there were mistakes in Colin Powell’s speech, the public doesn’t like that either. That contributes to a diminishment in the press’s favorability ratings.

So we shouldn’t get too captured by that. I would like to see more hard-hitting journalism. And I think that if the press had done more of that in the lead-up to the war, it’s possible we would not be in quite the predicament we are there now.

TERENCE SMITH: Andy Kohut, let me ask Andy on that point whether the public tends to see the press or news organizations as manipulated, either by the government or by important, powerful elements in the society?

ANDREW KOHUT: The reporters and the journalists see themselves as playing a watchdog role. 70 percent of the public has for a long time said the press is pushed around — but I want to make — pushed around by powerful forces in society — government, big business, advertisers.

There’s a lot of skepticism out there. It’s longstanding. What’s different now, I think, speaks to a number of comments that have been made different in terms of public attitudes. For a very long time, the American public has been skeptical of the news process, the way the news is collected, the way it’s reported, but while they’re skeptical of the process, they liked the product.

What they don’t like now is the product. And more and more people are doubting the values of journalists. Fewer Americans are thinking they’re professional. Fewer Americans are saying they’re moral. Fewer Americans are saying they care about what they’re doing. That’s a real big problem.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, Ken Auletta, that sounds like a bit of a blanket indictment. Is there anything news organizations can or are doing about it?

KEN AULETTA: Well, I think one of the things news organizations have to do is be more transparent. I think they have to open themselves up, as CBS failed to do, as they acknowledged they failed to do this in this report. They should have earlier acknowledged that they… that maybe a mistake was made; they’re going to investigate it themselves; and the New York Times did it; they investigated themselves.

But I think if we give speeches, we ought to be willing to say who we speak to, how much money do we make on that? This is not to say the public is sainted and the public is always right, because the public is not. And they could be wrong about journalism. But we have to be as transparent as we ask Enron and all these companies to be, and we’re not nearly as much as we should be. We have to open up our procedures.

We have to as the press has begun to do much more credibly, if someone doesn’t want to be identified in a story, doesn’t want to have a quote attributed to them, try and give the reason to your reader or viewer why they don’t want to be quoted by name. They may have a good reason and you may need the information, but try… I think transparency is a very important thing. And part of being transparent is to be a little more humble. We’re in the business of asking questions and listening, not making speeches.

TERENCE SMITH: Humility, Nancy Maynard, is that a missing and important ingredient?

NANCY MAYNARD: Well, I don’t know very many journalists who are humble. But many and most try to do a very good job. I’m not sure it’s so much humility. I think it’s tonal, and I think that it is demographic in most cases. If you look at the ages, the people who run news organizations now, they’re early boomers and those who are a little older.

We have always been considered self-indulgent by other age cohorts. And the product that we’re putting out there is considered self-indulgent. It reflects our views of life and not as much the views of the country as a whole, as I think it was Michael who was saying, we just don’t get out and do as much reporting as we used to.

The world is a big place; it’s a more complicated place. But certainly there is a mismatch between many of the values of the journalists and those who are consumers of the product. And it’s not necessarily political. It’s not necessarily about faith. It’s just about life as we see it given where we are and how we’ve grown up.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Sounds like there’s a lot to repair there. I want to thank all four of you very much.