The public and the media: always a rocky relationship

Steven Stark

November 14, 1990|By Steven Stark

YOU DON'T have to be a particularly astute observer of the American scene to notice that resentment of the media is rampant. For example:

* In a Times-Mirror poll last year, 76 percent of the public found a great deal or a fair amount of political bias in news coverage, a sharp increase over only four years before.

* In movies such as both versions of "Die Hard," and in television shows such as "Quantum Leap" and "21 Jump Street," journalists are increasingly portrayed as villains who regularly interfere with police investigations and violate the privacy rights of ordinary citizens.

* Borrowing a page from the campaign strategies of George Wallace, Spiro Agnew and George Bush (whose 1988 confrontation with Dan Rather may have been the crystallizing moment of his candidacy), John Silber made media-bashing one of the central themes of his run for governor of Massachusetts.

There are still positive portraits of the media on shows like "Murphy Brown." Distrust of the press is as old as the republic. The Jeffersonians and Federalists routinely savaged each others' newspapers; Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman thought all reporters should be treated as spies; and Franklin Roosevelt railed against the one-party press that opposed his New Deal.

But in recent years, public feelings toward the media have worsened. Though journalists tend to view themselves as independent crusaders acting in society's best interest, many Americans now see them instead as part of a professional elite and thus one of the leading symbols of the establishment.

Why is this happening? Not because all journalists have a liberal bias. Instead, it's in part because journalism has changed in the television age, much to the displeasure of a large portion of the public. To wit:

* Journalism has become more interpretive. As cable television has taken over the role once held by the networks and newspapers as the primary dispenser of news, these other organs have become more like magazines and regularly explain the news. According to S. Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the difference is significant: While many members of the public still think it's the job of the press to give them the facts, most reporters in the TV age think it's their job to deliver the truth. Inevitably, that puts reporters in the role of lecturing to people, never a popular position. And, of course, what is truth? Reasonable minds can differ.

* Journalists are more visible today. Television has put reporters and their craft into every living room in America. Dan Rather is shown conversing with Saddam Hussein. Presidential press conferences are routinely televised. Half of every Sunday, we see dozens of reporters pontificating to dozens of other reporters about the week's events.

Such scenes may play well in Washington, D.C. or Cambridge, Mass. But not in Peoria or even Glen Burnie. This is, after all a democratic country -- who elected these folks to conduct diplomacy or tell Marylanders what to think? Moreover, on a medium whose prime-time shows enshrine decorum and low-key affability, reporters in the field often come across as loud, ill-mannered boors. Who appeared better night after night, a smiling President Reagan or the yuppie reporters who always yelled questions at him as he boarded the helicopter?

* Journalists are seen as too cynical. On the one hand, reporters are supposed to be objective. On the other, according to Jay Rosen, a research fellow at the Gannett Center for Media Studies, they are distrusted by the public because they don't take sides, often appearing not to believe in anything. In eras when voters lament modernism and the loss of faith, journalists are often seen as the enemy -- our prime cynics.

What's more, as the historian Daniel Boorstin has written, most American newspapers were started as the "advance advertising agents of new communities." Unlike in Europe, they tended to be controlled by local businessmen interested in boosting their city, rather than ideologies. Americans came to expect their journalists to soft-pedal bad news, particularly when the bad newswa local, so as not to hurt a city's image.

The rah-rah tenor of USA Today is unique only in its applicatio to a national rather than parochial audience.

That optimism, of course, is hardly the credo of most of the press today. Yet even if it were, this would be a hard time to keep the faith. With the economy in decline, government in chaos and troops on alert halfway across the globe, the message isn't pretty. It may, in fact, be easier to blame the messenger.

Steven Stark writes a column for the Boston Globe.

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