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The public's view of the press

Earl Caldwell

The public is not on our side, and I think that in the news media, one of the things is you have to have the public on your side. This is what the biggest difference is now for me. When we ended up going against the Black Panthers -- and in that period, the people used to be happy to see us coming as reporters, because they actually believe that we were going to be a part of telling some truth; that there were situations where I'd see us come onto a scene and people would actually applaud us. We were hero figures. You might say it's part of the last great time to be a reporter, especially a newspaperman, in America. But that is what's different. We don't have that kind of trust now. People don't hold us in that high regard. ...

Why is it that journalists aren't heroes anymore?

I truly believe that one part of it has to do with that anonymous sources thing. ... Also, I think another thing is the technology. ... The separation now is not as great as it was. I came in a time when we had these huge, larger-than-life figures. A fellow that befriended me, became a guru for me, was the late [CBS president] Fred Friendly. He was the first person to really talk to me about the First Amendment and about the responsibility of the media and what we could do for good if we weren't so obsessed with money. And you know, Fred Friendly, ... after building probably the greatest television news organization ever now, ... he got ran out. But we've been going bit by bit by bit, slipping back since then.

Now we're at one of those points where -- I hate to put it like this -- but this is where I say for some journalist to have to go to jail now, it's not the worst thing to happen, because you're in a fight for what you believe in. And I think the public has to be able to look and see and to understand what you need to be effective in doing your job, and then seeing results that they can buy into of your work. It's not as simple as it used to be.

Mark Feldstein

Professor, The George Washington University

Mark Feldstein

So how important in all of this has the shift been? Because you talked about public opinion after enduring Watergate being critically important and public opinion today. How important is the shift in public opinion?

Well, that's an interesting question. One of the things about Watergate is reporters were the heroes then. They were seen as having helped bring down a crooked president. Reporters are not the heroes today.

If you look at our folk culture, our movies, entertainment, the way they're portrayed, journalists today are seen as this gaggle of vultures who go after and attack for sensationalism, for ratings, for entertainment purposes, not through idealism. They're not seen as watchdogs anymore; they're seen as attack dogs.

That may be true, it may be false; we can debate that. But there is much less public sympathy to the press now, to the news media now, than there used to be. And the Bush administration in particular doesn't view journalism as representatives of the public. They view them as another special interest group, out for their own reasons, not on behalf of the public. That's one of the reasons I emphasized earlier, that it matters not because reporters matter, not because journalists matter; it matters because the journalists are the conduits to the public. ...

Nicholas Kristof

Columnist, The New York Times

Nicholas Kristof

For some 30-odd years, there was this argument that journalistic privilege carried some weight. Now we see journalists being subpoenaed left and right for refusing to reveal their confidential sources. What's changed?

There's been a clear change in the kind of protections that we journalists get. Part of that is courts and prosecutors are being much more aggressive in forcing journalists to disclose sources. But I think it's a mistake to only look at the legal dimension of this.

Fundamentally, our legal rights arise out of a context of public opinion and how we are regarded. The esteem for journalism has fallen. Now, some of the earlier, great constitutional cases that granted First Amendment freedoms -- such as New York Times v. Sullivan [1964], a great libel protection case -- those emerged out of a context where the press was recognized for playing a crucial role in society and encouraging free debate and where reporters were respected for the role that they played.

I don't think that there is nearly the same recognition of that kind of positive role for journalism. So I think that one reason prosecutors go after reporters and toss them in prison is because the public accepts that. The public, in many cases, resents reporters as being arrogant elitists. And I think that we have to worry not only about our precise legal situation, but also about this larger way in which we're perceived. …

I'm from a little town in Oregon. I go back every summer, and I see friends. There really is a resentment at the press, at this liberal Eastern establishment, out there in the heartland. Partly it's because of the values issues, the notion that on questions like abortion, prayer in schools, religion generally and attitudes toward evangelical Christianity, that the press is on a different page from a good chunk of America. Part of it in turn has been just amplified by these kinds of social tensions, and the fact that you have Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly ganging up on The New York Times and on the rest of the press and making it an issue. ...

There is tremendous resentment out there, and that has been manipulated by the administration. But that resentment toward the press is real, and it creates this tinder for any politician to go out and throw matches and try to inflame it. …

Tom Rosenstiel

Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism

Tom Rosenstiel

They have data to back up that theory. We have now two decades of public opinion polling that shows that Americans increasingly doubt the morality of the press, the accuracy of the press, the intentions of the press by any number of different measurements and different ways of asking the question.

When you boil that data down, increasingly Americans doubt that the press is operating in the public interest. They perceive news organizations as operating out of their own economic interests, and they perceive individual journalists as operating out of the motive of advancement of their own careers.

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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