News & Politics » Media

Who Hates Traditional Media the Most?; The Press has Had Better Wars; News Bites

It's not who you think.

by

comment

Who Hates Traditional Media the Most?

I had a theory, until some facts got in the way. It was inspired by an April 12 column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times about a recent Pew Research Center report on the media--a report he called "painful to read." He wrote, "The report says that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago." He thought he knew why. "We in the news media are widely perceived as arrogant, out of touch and untrustworthy." He worried that unless journalists "recover the public trust . . . we'll wake up one day to find ourselves on the wrong side of history."

In truth, journalists are wide-awake and terrified that they're already on the wrong side of history and there's no way back. "Traditional news outlets are confronting a potentially devastating demographic tide," says the Pew report. The new generation of readers is ignoring them. The front page of the "Baseball 2005" special section of the Tribune on April 4 was a full-page illustration of geezer ballplayers leaning on canes

and walkers. The superimposed headline said "Old-timers' game," and the subhead explained, "As players of '80s vintage enter their late 30s and early 40s, they just keep getting better with age." This was a baseball section that knew it would never be glanced at by adolescent males.

When I read Kristof's column I blamed those under-30 nonreaders for the public's plummeting faith in the press. I figured they know just enough about newspapers to know they're supposed to be good for you, but since they don't read them they'd rather invent reasons to blame the papers than blame themselves.

The Pew report didn't analyze the scoffers by age group. But the center had those numbers and broke them out for me. It seems I was wrong.

Consider Kristof's own paper. "While only 14 percent of Republicans believe all or most of what they read in the New York Times, even among Democrats the figure is only 31 percent," he lamented. Kristof makes a subtle mistake here. He assumes the poll was of people who read the New York Times. It wasn't. Pew simply polled a cross section of the public about the New York Times (and other media). In other words, it measured reputation. While 21 percent of pollees 18 through 29 said they found "all or most" of what's in the Times believable, only 18.6 percent of pollees 50 through 64 did. By contrast, 28.7 percent of the first group but 46.6 percent of the second thought little or nothing in the Times could be believed.

Asked about the Wall Street Journal, 31.2 percent of the first group and 39 percent of the second said little or nothing it published was believable. For daily papers in general the figures were 39.6 percent and 51.6 percent. TV audiences were also polled. ABC News: 26.3 percent and 47.7 percent. CNN: 18.9 percent and 34 percent. Fox News on cable: 34.7 percent and 45.4 percent.

In other words, it's among the people who've spent a lifetime with traditional media that we now find the largest numbers who don't trust them. This could mean that the media have begun doing things terribly wrong. It could also mean a lot more people now dismiss out of hand media they're unfamiliar with. When two out of five middle-aged pollees say almost nothing's believable in the Wall Street Journal--a preposterous impression--chances are the Journal name has lost the trust of a lot of people who've never picked it up.

Kids are kinder. Pew's numbers suggest they feel no particular need to put down the media they ignore. Consider 60 Minutes. Among all the media Pew asked about--ranging from the Times and Journal and NewsHour With Jim Lehrer to People and the National Enquirer--nothing was trusted by more people than 60 Minutes. About one person in three told Pew they believe all or most of what's reported on that show, and about one person in three in the 18-to-29 age group said the same thing. Yet the median age of the 60 Minutes audience is over 50.

The Press Has Had Better Wars

Perilous Times is a history of measures to limit the people's liberties that Congress, the White House, and the courts have taken or resisted during eras of American belligerence. The press is mentioned frequently but usually in passing in Geoffrey Stone's recent book, and rarely in terms that would make a journalist proud. The Pentagon Papers drama is the exception, a time when the press gallantly took center stage. For the most part, Stone's glimpses of the press find it adding more heat than light, contributing to the partisan clamor that presidents who crack down on dissent are trying either to indulge or to suppress.

Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago and former dean of its law school, will be giving a lecture that's open to the public on April 28 at the Palmer House Hilton. In an exchange of e-mail I asked him if he drew any conclusions about the press as he was writing.

"I didn't focus on the press," he replied. "This was more a book about dissent. Moreover, the 'press' is hardly monolithic and has evolved over time. I would say the press was at its best during the Civil War and the Vietnam war, and at its worst during World War I and the cold war. Today I think it is deeply disappointing and not adequately meeting its responsibility to our nation. It has allowed itself to be manipulated in ways that are unprecedented."

Asked in what ways, Stone replied, "First, some elements of the press have allowed themselves to work secretly as paid agents of the administration. Second, I believe the embedded arrangement allowed the administration to co-opt the media in important ways. Third, I believe most of the media have been intimidated about alienating the administration. As evidence of this, I would point to the almost complete absence in the American media of images of wounded American soldiers and of Iraqi civilians wounded or killed accidentally by American troops. Such images were commonplace during the Vietnam war but are almost invisible in this war, even though they are readily available on the media in other parts of the world. That suggests a conscious decision by the American media not to show them."

Stone told me, "I think the institutional press today has failed to maintain its essential independence from government, from an unduly concentrated ownership, and from commercial and corporate interests. For the most part, the American people are hearing a sanitized version of political and world events. It is very troubling."

I asked him if the Bush administration's notorious "video news releases" and subsidized "journalists" were really anything new.

"Governments have always attempted to shape the public's perception of their policies," Stone replied, "especially in wartime. The most dramatic example of this was Woodrow Wilson's creation of the Committee on Public Information, which was charged with the task of producing a flood of editorials, leaflets, speeches, and movies, all designed to promote a hatred of all things German and a deep suspicion of anyone who might be accused of disloyalty. It is the deceit involved in the current practice that makes it particularly troubling."

The 9/11 era is little more than a postscript at the end of Stone's book, and overall the book is a story of progress made. Stone tracks the ascent of First Amendment rights from the Sedition Act of 1798, when the Bill of Rights was brand-new and those rights were barely defined and easily set aside, through the Vietnam war, when the Supreme Court was willing to defy the Nixon White House over the Pentagon Papers. As Stone tells the tale, this progress--enlightenment, if you will--can seem more inevitable than a reader might be willing to accept or than Stone actually believes it was. He doesn't think of the Supreme Court as lifted by an irresistible tide. "Without a Holmes, Brandeis or Brennan," he wrote me, "First Amendment law would undoubtedly have evolved differently than it has. In an institution with only nine members, one individual can have a powerful effect, and once his ideas win over the court"--as a dissent by justices Holmes and Brandeis in a 1919 free-speech case eventually did--"they can begin to win over the nation."

What current breaches of civil liberties, I asked, will most embarrass us tomorrow?

"The government's pervasive and obsessive secrecy," Stone answered, "which is designed in part to prevent the public from understanding and evaluating the government's actions; the treatment of the individuals we have detained at Guantanamo, in Iraq, and elsewhere; and the astonishing claim that the executive has the authority to seize and detain American citizens, on American soil, without ever informing family, friends, or coworkers, with no recourse to a lawyer or to judicial review, and for an indefinite period of time. To me, this is the most extreme and unwarranted assertion of executive authority in American history."

News Bites

Congratulations to the Sun-Times for the blow it's just struck against junk e-mail. On Saturday, April 16, it ran a full-page text-heavy ad on page 19 touting the merits of a "development pump"--also known as a penis expander. "For several years, we have been attempting to market this product on a large scale, but the newspapers refused to allow advertising on this subject," explained the chatty ad. "Today, and since the arrival of Viagra, it is much easier to address erectile problems in newspapers."

Publisher John Cruickshank told me the ad was a horrible mistake that buried the paper in complaints. "I'm thoroughly appalled," he said. "I don't want to be a censor, but anything that drives people away from newspapers is something none of us can afford these days." If the head of advertising had seen the ad beforehand it never would have run, he said, but she was out of town.

But there's a bright side. If the ad works it could signal a shift in penis-expansion marketing strategy away from spam to daily newspapers, cutting e-mail downloading times in half.

Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, has just published a memoir, Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop. Lelyveld goes on at length trying to puzzle out the mysterious life of rabbi Ben Goldstein, a friend of his father's whom Lelyveld as a boy considered a second father and his best friend. Thanks to FBI files, which suspected Goldstein of being a Soviet spy, Lelyveld had plenty of information to draw from.

Lelyveld wrote, "The Soviet consulate in San Francisco, including the KGB station, is in an uproar over [Goldstein's] affair with the wife of an official named Mikhail Kalatozov whose cover involves Soviet film."

Cover? Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wishes Lelyveld had been a little more curious about Kalatozov, who was no mere functionary. "He started out in the silent era, and I think it would be fair to say he was one of the major Russian directors," Rosenbaum e-mailed me. "The Cranes Are Flying (1957) was so well-known in the U.S. that it even played for a couple of days, subtitled, in my hometown in Alabama." Cranes won the highest award at the Cannes film festival.

Rosenbaum's desire to set the record straight is complicated. He's Lelyveld's cousin.

Add a comment