The Journal Editorial Report | March 11, 2005 | PBS
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briefing and opinion
March 11, 2005

The Way It Is
David Weinberger

Blogger David Weinberger sits near his computer at his home, in Brookline, Massachusetts, January 18, 2005. Though many bloggers don't consider themselves journalists, a few are trying to claim the same protections used by journalists such as protecting confidential sources. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

A recent Gallup poll shows the state of the public's confidence in newspaper and television journalism: 30 percent have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence; 69 percent say they have some confidence or none at all. It's always been true that some journalists make mistakes and some allow their biases to influence their reporting. We asked correspondent Barry Serafin to look at why public confidence in journalists has fallen so low.

In retrospect, it was probably Dan Rather's initial reluctance to admit mistakes that led to his early retirement as anchor of the CBS Evening News. "It was too bad that Dan decided to cling to that story as long as he did," says former CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite.

Dan Rather But, while that and other journalistic embarassments, such as Jayson Blair's fraudulent reporting at THE NEW YORK TIMES, did not help the press's credibility, media analyst Tom Rosenstiel says they are not responsible for the public's eroding trust in journalists.

"These incidents seem to be confirming the attitudes that Americans have, rather than shocking people into some new, greater sense of distrust," says Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

If it's not the messenger, is it the message?

When Walter Cronkite was in the anchor chair, the level of public trust in the media was much higher than it is today. What's has changed from those days till now? In the 1960's, America was also politically polarized over the Vietnam War, but the press still had considerable credibility. In fact, the most trusted man in America was journalist Walter Cronkite. When he declared Vietnam a quagmire, saying "we are mired in stalemate," President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

Walter Cronkite and Lyndon Johnson The following decade, President Nixon, hounded in the press over Vietnam, unleashed his attack dog, Vice-president Spiro Agnew, to go after the press, whom Agnew dubbed "nattering nabobs of negativism."

But Agnew, faced with tax fraud charges, resigned in disgrace. So too did Nixon after the dogged Watergate reporting led by WASHINGTON POST journalists Woodward and Bernstein.

Flush with a journalistic coup and a glamorous hollywood portrayal of reporters in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, journalism schools overflowed and the press was held in high regard by readers and viewers.

Then, in the 80's, the media landscape changed dramatically. With cable, three networks became dozens. Thirty minutes of dinner hour news became news around the clock. Audiences fragmented and commentary competed with reporting.

"I think all these talk shows -- I call them shout shows -- kind of skew the general pattern of what people think of as news. They are not basic news journalists," says Cronkite.

Watergate in the Press Ken Auletta, a media writer at the NEW YORKER, concurs. "Someone who appears on a cable talk show and bloviates and expresses very sharp opinions is considered a journalist," says Auletta. "Inevitably, if we're all lumped together in a kind of mass stereotype, we're gonna lose some credibility."

Press credibility has indeed decreased over the years says Tom Rosenstiel "Americans over the last 20 years have come to think of the press as less moral, less accurate, less professional."

The Bush administration has stoked that distrust. While the president has kept news conferences few and far between, those close to him have mounted an assault on the press. In June 2004, Vice President Richard Cheney offered his opinion that the press was irresponsible. While Cheney's view is shared by many, says Auletta, he maintains that it is not acted upon as aggressively as the Bush administration acts upon it.

Those unhappy with the press, can now find news, or at least commentary, to reinforce their views -- news-you-can-choose -- be it red truth or blue truth. As confidence in reporting by broadcasters and newspapers has eroded, a growing number of Americans have been turning to another source of news: Internet sites called web logs -- blogs for short. But are bloggers journalists?Marvin Kalb

"You have all of the new people sounding off as though they know what they're talking about and most of them don't," says Marvin Kalb, Center for the Press, Politics & Public Policy, Harvard University.

Blogger Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine.com says that bloggers are a magnificent addition to news media. News blogs, like Jarvis' Buzzmachine, are exploding at least five million, maybe as many as 13 million self-proclaimed "journalists," some of them with a political agenda, are publishing on the Internet.

"Bloggers are just the public finally able to speak," says Jarvis. We've owned the printing press for centuries, the broadcast tower for decades. Now the people have the printing press in the Internet."

Bloggers consider themselves media watchdogs. Others call them a lynch mob.

"If seeking truth from power is a lynch mob, then all journalism is a lynch mob," says Jarvis. Instapundit.com

Whatever the perils or promise of the Internet, however crowded or confusing the ranks of journalists, the big question remains for major news media facing declining and skeptical audiences.

What should the press do to restore some public confidence?

"Transparency, be more transparent," says Auletta. "Admit our mistakes when we make them. Don't be too quick to offer opinions. Listen, really listen."

And hope that the public continues to listen, watch and read.

Interview with Ken Auletta>