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March 11, 2005



PAUL GIGOT: This was Dan Rather's last week as anchor of the CBS Evening News. He left the job earlier than planned, because of his involvement in the badly botched story about President Bush's service in the National Guard. After more than a quarter of a century as one of the most successful and influential journalists in history, Rather's name is now attached to one of a series of highly publicized examples of bad journalism -- in both print and broadcasting. And, inevitably, these episodes are linked with the fact that journalism is experiencing a major crisis of credibility with the American public.

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.

Other polls show journalists are now less well thought of than lawyers, auto mechanics, and politicians. 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.

DAN RATHER ON SIXTY MINUTES: Tonight, we have new documents and new information on the president's military service.

BARRY SERAFIN: 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.

DAN RATHER: Also, I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry.

WALTER CRONKITE: It was too bad that Dan decided to cling to that story as long as he did.

BARRY SERAFIN: But while that and other journalistic embarrassments, 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 eroding trust in journalists.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: These incidents seem to be confirming the attitude that Americans have rather than shocking people into some new, greater sense of distrust.

BARRY SERAFIN: So, if it's not the messenger, is it the message?

When you were in the anchor chair, the level of public trust in the media in general was much, much higher than it is today. What's the big thing that's changed from those days till now?

WALTER CRONKITE: The politics of the country, for one.

BARRY SERAFIN: So you think the political polarization affects the way people look at the news media?

WALTER CRONKITE: Yes, very definitely.

BARRY SERAFIN: In the 1960s, 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 a journalist, Walter Cronkite. And when he declared Vietnam a quagmire ...

WALTER CRONKITE: I say that we are mired in stalemate.

BARRY SERAFIN: President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

The following decade, President Nixon, hounded in the press over Vietnam, unleashed his attack dog, Vice President Spiro Agnew, to go after the press.

SPIRO AGNEW: The nattering nabobs of negativism.

BARRY SERAFIN: 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, journalisms schools overflowed, and the press was held in high regard by readers and viewers. Then, in the eighties, 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.

WALTER CRONKITE: I think that all these talk shows -- I call them the shout shows -- kind of skew the general pattern of what people think of as news. They are not basic news journalism.

KEN AULETTA (MEDIA WRITER, NEW YORK MAGAZINE): Someone who appears on a cable talk show and bloviates and expresses very sharp opinions is considered a journalist, just as you, a straight journalist, are considered a journalist. And so inevitably, if we're all lumped together in a kind of a mass stereotype, we're going to lose some credibility.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Americans over the last 20 years have come to think of the press as less moral, less accurate, less professional.

BARRY SERAFIN: And 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.

VICE PRESIDENT RICHARD CHENEY: The press has been irresponsible.

KEN AULETTA: This view is shared by many, but not acted upon as aggressively as the Bush administration acts upon it.

VICE PRESIDENT RICHARD CHENEY: What THE NEW YORK TIMES did today was outrageous. They do a lot of outrageous things, but they ...

BARRY SERAFIN: Those unhappy with the press can now find news, or at least commentary, to reinforce their views, so-called "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 (CENTER FOR THE PRESS, POLITICS & PUBLIC POLICY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY): You have all of the new people sounding off as though they know what they're talking about, and most of them don't.

JEFF JARVIS: I think bloggers are a magnificent addition to news media.

BARRY SERAFIN: News blogs, like Jeff Jarvis's 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.

JEFF JARVIS (BUZZMACHINE.COM): Bloggers are just the public finally able to speak. We've owned the printing press for centuries, the broadcast tower for decades. Now the people have a printing press in the Internet.

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

JEFF JARVIS: If seeking truth from power is a lynch mob, then all journalism is a lynch mob.

MARVIN KALB: I fear that it's unchecked and in a sense uncheckable, that somebody can be torn apart in this blogisphere today -- sometimes with justice, but many times without justice.

BARRY SERAFIN: 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.

So what should the press do to restore some public confidence?

KEN AULETTA: Transparency. Be more transparent. Admit our mistakes when we make them. Don't be quick to offer opinions. Listen, really listen.

BARRY SERAFIN: And hope that the public continues to listen, and watch, and read. For THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT, I'm Barry Serafin.

PAUL GIGOT: Dan, those of us at this table are certainly part of the media, in print and now on television. Is the credibility problem that the media has, is it as large as the poll suggests? And what's behind it?

DAN HENNINGER: Yeah, I think pretty clearly it is. That Gallup poll that you quoted was taken last September, just shortly after the election. And another number that came out of it was, out of the entire sample 48 percent of those polled thought the media was now too liberal. That's kind of interesting. The entire sample thought that. So what's going on here?

I think up until recently, the media occupied a position of authority in American life, just as the clergy do or judges, firemen and policemen. Society confers on this institution an authoritative role. They were trusted. And I think because of the partisanship that was reflected in the last election, they abdicated that authority -- which to me was astonishing, that you would throw over something that you had worked so hard to earn. And now the public regards the media as being powerful and having a lot of clout, and being a player in politics. But they no longer look to them for a kind of common set of facts about what's going on. They just feel they're being spun by the media these days.

PAUL GIGOT: So the political polarization. You kind of agree with Cronkite's point, that that's a big part of it.

DAN HENNINGER: Yeah, I think it's ended up at that point.

PAUL GIGOT: Dorothy, is there an issue of standards here? Have the standards fallen? Accuracy, fairness?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Yes. And it's one that connects with something Dan said. You have, whereas before you would have a kind of acceptance of the media's authority as legitimate, now people can see a kind of contentiousness in the subjects chosen, the constant battering of, if you go to your television set are there five stories on homelessness. Is this reporting the news? Are there five stories about discrimination? Is there no other news in the world? And people, though they may not voice it, walk away and say, "Something is wrong here. I don't know what it is."

Just after Watergate, the media did have a very high sense of themselves. They are now moral authorities. This is what has happened to them. They see themselves as a sacred calling, and it is their business to dispense what social views should be put before people.

PAUL GIGOT: Are you saying that they've given up the kind of fact-gathering function that...

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: They've given up. Yes. What has happened -- exactly. In the old Cronkite days -- in his days, and being -- the media looked outside at the world and reported what was there. And then discussed it in analysis shows. Now, they look inside themselves, and they have all kinds of media institutes to wring their hands over offences against various things. But more than anything else, they see themselves as the arbiters of what is the important moral story.

PAUL GIGOT: This may not simply be about ideology, Dorothy. Dan and I have talked about that behind this might be structural. That is, the competitiveness of the press, in particular when newspapers were the only game in town, they had a kind of fact-dispensing job. They told you in the morning what had happened the day before. Now you can get it instantly. Well, for many years you could, on the television and increasingly on the Internet. And that's made, just on a market basis, newspapers search for a niche.

DAN HENNINGER: Sure. Thirty or so years ago you not only got that set of facts in the morning, you got it in the afternoon from afternoon newspapers. And then afternoon newspapers went out of business because of the evening television news. And newspapers panicked at that point. They said, look, people are going to watch the local and national news in the evening, and by the morning they'll have the facts about what was going on, and there'll be no reason for them to read our papers.

And so a decision was made to start doing more, what was called "analysis"in the newspapers. I distinctly remember when The New York Times would label its column "news analysis. "Over the years, virtually all reporting has become both fact collection and analysis. And when I talk to people, they ask me, "Where can I get a simple set of facts about what's going on without all of this spinning inside of it?" And the answer is, "Nowhere." Because television actually never did fulfill that role as much as the newspapers feared.

KIM STRASSEL: You know, on that competition point, I think that actually what's happening here is quite simply a business story in a way, in that the established media is being challenged by new technology much in the way that other businesses are. You know, the airline industry has had to deal with Internet fares, the old telephone companies have had to deal with cell phones and broadband.

And basically, it used to be THE NEW YORK TIMES, if you didn't like what they had to say, the most you could do was write a letter or sit at home and fume. But now, you can go start a blog. You can go listen to talk radio, or satellite radio, or anything you want. And I think that this is actually something we should be applauding, because it's great for debate, it's great for transparency.

PAUL GIGOT: Having worked in Washington as a reporter for a long time, one of the faults of the press you see there is that everybody thinks alike. They all pursue one story. It's a big pack, the "herd of independent minds,"in the famous phrase. And everybody will get a theme, or the same storyline, and pursue it and flog it. Abu Ghraib story was a legitimate news story, the prison scandal, but it appeared on one newspaper's front page -- I think I recall -- 47 days in a row. That's probably more than it deserved. So other stories get crowded out.

And I think what you're talking about with the competitive nature of talk radio, and Fox News and others, they're arguably filling a market niche for people who want to pursue other stories or think that they aren't getting the story from other places.

Say what you will about Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch and their politics, they're businessmen. And they wouldn't be succeeding if people didn't want to watch what they're offering.

KIM STRASSEL: And you touched on something that I think, in talking about group mind-think -- there's been a lot of complaints, both from the right and the left, that we have an established media these days full of people that come from the same socio-economic backgrounds. They go to the same schools, they live in the same cities. And I think there's a feeling that they have lost touch with the people that they report about, and are reporting for. And I'm sure that that also has some sort of influence on how people view the established media, and the trust they have in it.

DAN HENNINGER: Do you see any adjustment being made? If you were in a business and nearly half of your market was dissatisfied with your product, wouldn't you take a look about changing the business model? This is the only business I'm aware of where they just keep going.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Well, there was one -- NBC departed and decided that they would focus the evening news on Your America. We're not going to go into foreign stuff as much as you do. And that was a good business decision. It put them very well ahead. People want to hear, you know, the news that's local, local being America.

PAUL GIGOT: Okay, thank you Dorothy. Next subject.