Why Do Many Readers Hate Us Again?

By: Alex S. Jones

The newest polls about the press are discouraging enough to make even H.L. Mencken weep. The public, which had admired us in the months after Sept. 11, has turned against us again. Nearly half those responding in the most recent Pew Research Center poll seem to think that we “don’t stand up for America,” and a majority believe we “don’t care about the people we report on.” Generally, polling numbers have gone back to pre-9/11 levels.

This seems undeserved, given the torrent of money that has been spent by news organizations after 9/11 (despite the advertising drought). And it is in spite of the risks run by scores of reporters to cover a war in Afghanistan that was often more dangerous for journalists than for GIs.

So why have we lost the public’s high regard? Does the public have our number or does the public misjudge us? And what should we do now?

The public loved us most in November, when flags rippled on the corners of TV screens and from on-camera lapels. Journalists were asking few tough questions regarding civilian bombing casualties and civil liberties, and the American military was rolling to a stunning victory in Afghanistan. Despite the tragedy of Sept. 11, we had a lot of good news to cover, and even pieces on the tragic aspects of the story seemed to forge a common sense of outrage and purpose. The more thorny elements tended to be put aside until a later day.

This spring and summer, that day came. The triumphant story ran its course, and the what-really-happened story began to be covered, with disquieting results. We started to get reports that there were significant civilian casualties, and serious questions began to be raised about the wisdom of an invasion of Iraq. Darkening the news atmosphere further were the stories of Enron Corp., Global Crossing, and the betrayal of shareholders. The market fell. The news from the Middle East had seldom been worse. These past six months have not been a happy time on the news pages.

So, has the public simply returned to its pre-9/11 attitude when the press returned to its normal adversarial role as the news itself turned bad? When the lapdog turned back into a watchdog?

No doubt that is a big part of the drop in our approval rating. But we would be letting ourselves off the hook too easily to believe that the problem lies entirely with the public’s distaste for us whenever we simply do our job. There are some questions that we tend to ignore that we should, instead, take time to ponder.

Is wanting public approval pandering or is public approval something worth trying to win? What did the public see in us after 9/11 that is worth struggling to preserve? Were we simply more human and accessible, less confrontational and negative? Can we do our job well and still be human and accessible — and not so confrontational and negative? Is being overtly American in our reporting wrong? What does it mean to be an American journalist, as opposed to being a journalist without a national perspective, such as at the BBC? Where is the line between flag waving and simply reacting as an American?

There are genuine assaults on the press now under way that make these questions especially urgent. The Bush administration is taking unprecedented steps to limit access to public records, and the Freedom of Information Act is in real jeopardy. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made many Pentagon officials afraid to be seen speaking to journalists, and lately the FBI has been conducting a scorched-earth search for the source of leaks on Capitol Hill.

Two recent best-selling books, Bias and Slander, have accused the media of everything except abducting children. Various interest groups have tried to intimidate news organizations into tailoring their reporting to satisfy a particular political perspective. Coverage of the Middle East, for instance, has made news organizations a target of both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups.

The point is that we need the public’s support, now more than ever. We need for the public to understand that it is not unpatriotic to want government officials to leak information. That’s how we — and our readers — find out about what Washington is really up to. We need the public to care about access to documents. We need them to believe we are acting on their behalf when we fight for such things. And we need the public to understand that while journalism is not often perfect, that doesn’t mean that it’s calculatedly slanted and biased.

With the problems that we face, we dare not simply shrug and say, “The public’s attitude be damned.” We need, instead, to spend some time figuring out what we can honorably do to nudge those polling results back up. The stakes for us, and for the public, have never been higher.

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