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Briefing and Opinion
March 11, 2005

Listen. Really Listen.
Barry Serafin talks with Ken Aluetta
Barry Serafin interviews Ken Auletta  

Public regard for the mainstream media has diminished noticeably in recent years. What factors have contributed to this increasing mistrust and what can the media do to protect its most important asset -- credibility? Barry Serafin speaks with Ken Auletta -- a media writer at THE NEW YORKER -- on humility, responsibility and restoring public confidence.

Q: Public opinion polls indicate that just one-fifth of those surveyed see the press as having high ethical standards and only one-third thinks the mainstream media try to get their facts straight. What's responsible for those kinds of dismal numbers?

Watch VideoA: Among the many things that are responsible for those dismal numbers are the facts that the press makes mistakes and oftentimes when we make mistakes we are not quick to own up to them and the press is too preoccupied with conflict -- wow stories and gotcha kind of stories and too little interested in the serious stuff of government. Interestingly enough is a view of the press the Bush people were sharing with me. "We do not think the operative bias is a liberal bias. We think the operative bias is a conflict bias." You hear that from the left as well as the right.

Q: Who is a journalist?

A: The public confuses the different people in the press and lumps us all together. Someone who appears on a cable talk show and expresses very sharp opinions is considered a journalist. To the left, Rush Limbaugh is an ogre, just as to the right, Al Franken is probably an ogre. But they are considered to be journalists. Inevitably, if we're all lumped together in a kind of mass stereotype, we're going to lose some some credibility.

Q: You mention that another factor is that the public believes the press portrays the war in Iraq in a negative light and feels it is unpatriotic. Do you think the Bush administration, consciously or unconsciously, has provoked more of that?

Watch VideoA: I think the Bush administration views the press as a special interest. They don't see us representing the public interest. Because they see us as a special interest, they don't feel the same obligation to have to talk to us. They also see us, in fairness to the press, as people who are biting on their legs and doing stories that embarrass them. One of the reasons that they are less accessible is because of that sense that we don't have to talk to you. Or that you're just interested in negative news or in gotcha and conflict.

Q: Do you think that CBS controversy has also eroded public confidence?

Watch VideoA: They made several mistakes. Then, for 12 days, instead of stopping and saying, "Wait a second, did we make a mistake?" They did what most human beings do when we're attacked -- they got defensive. They said, "No, no, we're right." They got self-righteous and they stupidly went for 12 days without an apology. That just reinforced the impression that's out there among the public that we are arrogant, elitist, people.

Q: We not only make mistakes, we won't admit them?

A: We're not as transparent as we ask companies like Enron to be. We say the same thing about the government. We want the Bush administration to make more documents available. If we're going to ask that of other people, how can we not do it ourselves? Often times we don't and that becomes a real problem. We're supposed to be humble. Humble enough to ask questions. Humble enough to listen to the answers that people give us.

If you then think about the people who appear on these cable interview programs and announce opinions, when was the last time you ever heard someone in one of these interviews say "I don't know?" Because they want sharper, they want quicker, they want more confident. But they [the public] also walk away with another impression which is that person is a blowhard. That person's not humble.

Q: You mentioned political polarization. Do you think that has exacerbated dissatisfaction with the press?

Watch Video

A: It's almost unanimous between the two sides. They are looking at reporters and they are saying, "You're not doing your job." Either because you're too aggressive asking questions of the president or you're not aggressive enough in asking questions of the president. The political polarization introduces a negativity on the part of the public, not skepticism but cynicism, that says, "We don't trust you."

Q: What should the press do to restore some public confidence?

Watch Video

A: Be more transparent. Admit our mistakes when we make them. Try as much as we can to reveal to readers, if we're quoting someone anonymously, try and tell them why that person doesn't want to be quoted. Don't be a wise guy. Don't be full of attitude when you do your reports on television particularly. Don't adopt a cynical pose. Stay with the information you have. You're supposed to be a straight reporter. Don't be quick to offer opinions. Listen. Really listen.

Q: Hasn't something fundamentally changed if people are watching news to reinforce their views instead of watching news that editors decide people ought to know?

A: If you don't have a common set of facts that you're operating off in a democracy, how are you ever going to have compromise and conciliation, which are the fundamentals of a democracy? THE WALL STREET JOURNAL can have an editorial page, but its news pages are reporting what they say are facts. If readers start to say "I don't trust your facts. I only trust the other guy's facts," then how do you have a common set of facts anymore?

Q: What do you say to the blogger's claim that they represent a more democratic form of journalism, while still others compare them to lynch mobs?

Watch VideoA: If you deem that the bloggers are a lynch mob, why do you have to succumb to it? How about showing some strength yourself. How about saying, "I'm a professional and I make judgments about what I think is important for people to know in a democracy." The presumption is that we have some expertise in being able to determine what is news, the importance of that news and what is a truly balanced or quote objective story. Don't do it with arrogance. Don't do it and say "I think I'm a professional, therefore I don't have to listen to you."

Q: Has the value or role of the editor changed with the Internet and blogging phenomena?

Watch VideoA: I love the idea that you can get you can hear the voices of bloggers from Iran or some Iraqi citizens talking to us. But we don't know who those citizens are. When they say, "Ten people in my family were killed last night." How do we certify that's true? That's why I want a big newspaper to certify whether it's true or not.

Q: Is today's young generation or tomorrow's more likely to get their news from the Internet than from those mainstream institutions?

A: They're increasingly getting their news from multiple sources. The Internet is increasingly cutting into television viewing. People multi-task. It used to be that people go home at 6:30, they wait and they watch the evening news. If you look at the viewing audience for newspapers and television, increasingly it's getting older and older. We know that younger people are not reading now and not watching news. Will they suddenly come to watch it? Or are they off the habit? We don't know the answer to that.

Q: If you put all this together: the fragmentation of the audience, the erosion of the audience, the multiple sources, the question of whether you have a generation that's watching or reading news at all. What happens to the social glue in this country?

A: A democracy assumes that some common sources and information, common-shared experiences. It's harder to do that in a fractionated country and world. I don't just mean fractured in terms of "polarized politics." I mean fractionated information. THE NEW YORK TIMES will tell you, if you ask them, or THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, "You know we're neutral. We're agnostic. If we could sell our newspaper online, we save money because we don't have to print them." But will people pay for those newspapers online? So far, for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, online has been a success. They can charge. But they have a peculiar readership. It's an affluent, business readership. Other newspapers and magazines have not had that kind of success with online publication.