Press Box

Why I Don’t Trust Readers

I’m sad to report that their credibility has fallen to an all-time low.

Oh, not you, dear Slate reader! The readers I distrust are the ones who, in survey after survey, tell pollsters how much they don’t trust the press.

My distrust is instinctual, but thanks to a June 8, 2004, survey study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, I now have empirical evidence for why readers can’t be relied on: They’re two-faced, untrustworthy, duplicitous bastards.

Over the last two decades, the Pew people have plotted a steady decline in the credibility of newspapers among its survey respondents. In 1985, 84 percent said they could believe most of what they read in their daily newspaper, but by 2004 that number was down to 54 percent.

These findings are enough to sicken the heart of any journalist—until he reads the rest of the survey. Over nearly the same interval, survey respondents gave consistently favorable marks to their own daily newspaper! In 1984, 88 percent of those familiar enough with a daily newspaper to give it a rating gave it a favorable grade. In 2005, 80 percent still did. Newspapers weren’t the only news organizations to earn the “I don’t believe it but I like it” rating from the public from Pew. The survey uncovered a similar pattern among viewers of both network news and local TV news: a sharp decline in believability but only a moderate one in favorability.

The average American’s dislike for the institution of journalism but satisfaction with its product has a political analogue. Most Americans hate Congress and Washington because they hate paying the taxes that give government money to spend on entitlements and pork-barrel legislation. But they love their individual members of Congress because they work hard to steer entitlements and pork to the district or state. 

I locate the origin of hatred for the press and Washington in the mid-1960s. After George Wallace showed how a candidate could mobilize voters by running against Washington, Richard Nixon and every other successful Republican candidate for president exploited this meme. Once Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, reached the White House, they added a wrinkle to the Wallace formula when they discovered that vilifying the press as incorrigibly left-wing, elitist, and unpatriotic was always good for a few votes. As the Republicans established themselves as the dominant party, running against Washington started to return less on the investment, but running against the press still fires up the faithful. The GOP’s “don’t trust the press (except Fox News)” mantra is readily digested and regurgitated by the party faithful, and commentators such as Rush Limbaugh are always happy to give it a daily boost.

The bloggers, politicians, and op-ed dimwits who disparage the press often attribute the decline of press credibility to journalistic frauds committed by such miscreants as former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who fabricated and plagiarized for months and months at his paper without getting caught, or other fabulists such as former USA Today reporter Jack Kelley, former Associated Press reporter Christopher Newton, and former New Republic writer Stephen Glass.

But a 2005 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey reveals that the majority of the public can’t possibly hold the Blair affair against journalism for the simple reason that his perfidy—the most widely publicized of all journalistic scandals in the last decade—is largely unknown to them. According to the survey, only 31 percent of respondents were familiar with the Blair episode.

Some of the hatred of the press is of the press’s own doing. Journalists began to set themselves up as paragons of objectivity and ethics in the late 1950s after having wandered in the wilderness of overt bias and sleaze for many decades. This was a good development, of course, but in promoting Absolute Objectivity and Ethical Purity, journalists set themselves up for a fall. For one thing, the sanctimonious sermons by journalists about how virtuous and upstanding they are make them easy to detest. For another, this drama of rising standards tends to transform minor transgressions, which wouldn’t have gotten a second look 30 years ago, into felonies that are debated endlessly on the Romenesko blotter and echoed throughout the media.

Take, for example, the story of Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede. Last week, DeFede tape-recorded a phone conversation with a disgraced politician who killed himself later in the Herald lobby. * Almost immediately, DeFede recognized his ethical lapse and volunteered the information to his bosses and apologized. They fired him, even though the Florida taping law is so vague it’s possible he didn’t even violate it. I’m all for higher standards, but I draw the line when journalists start getting more complaints about less serious professional lapses. Serious: Plagiarism, willful distortion, pattern of significant errors, bribe-taking. Not serious: campaign donations in the low three-figures for reporters distant from that beat; appearance of conflict of interest; a point of view; friendships with the rich and powerful. My rule of thumb is to judge the copy and resist conflating potential misdemeanors with capital offenses. We’re reporters, for goodness sake, not priests, no matter what Len Downie says.

The larger point that the boneheads who so despise the media need to appreciate is that the mainstream American press is better than it’s ever been. If you don’t believe me, visit your local library and roll through a couple of miles of microfilm of the papers you’re currently familiar with. By any comparison, today’s press is more accurate, ethical, reliable, independent, transparent, and trustworthy than ever. Skepticism is a healthy disposition in life. I wouldn’t be a press critic if I regarded the press as hunky-dory. But mindless skepticism is mainly an excuse for ignorance. Even the people who denounce the New York Times as the bible of liberals ultimately get most of their useful news from it.

Your average reader is not to be trusted because he just doesn’t know his own mind. In addition to the Jayson Blair finding, the Annenberg survey offers this gem. When asked how important it is to them to live in a country in which they can criticize the government, a resounding 81 percent of respondents say “very important” and 14 percent say “somewhat important.” The verdict is almost unanimous.

Now, one would assume that what’s good for the individual—rip into your government the best you can—would also be good for journalists, who are paid to watch-dog politicians. But the average reader can’t keep a consistent thought in his head for two minutes. When the same Annenberg survey asked if government should have the right to limit the press in reporting a story,  an appalling 68 percent said either “always,” “sometimes,” or “rarely.” Only 29 percent said “never.” Let’s hope the First Amendment never comes up for a vote.

I’ve had it with all you unreliable, inconsistent, and detestable blockheads. I’ve given you every possible chance and you’ve failed me miserably. Tonight I’m ordering a custom bumper-sticker that reads, “I Don’t Trust the Mainstream Media Audience.”


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Correction, Aug. 8, 2005: The article originally misstated when disgraced politician Arthur E. Teele Jr. killed himself. It was hours after he spoke with DeFede, not “moments later.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)