By: Michael Quinn Sullivan
Where do you go for good information? Upon whom can a free people rely to be informed about the events of the day? We used to place that trust in the Fourth Estate — the press, the media. Not anymore. Today, the number of Americans who say they have lost faith in the mainstream media has hit a new high.
Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Distrust is up from the past few years, when Americans were already more negative about the media than they had been in years prior to 2004.
Dismissing the accuracy of the press is nothing new; people in the news often express frustration with the media. Thomas Jefferson once quipped: “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” Lyndon Johnson said that if he “walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’”
But this different. This is not frustration exhibited not by the subject of news articles, but the consumers of them.
As recently as the 1970s, Gallop points out that 70 percent or more of Americans said they had great trust in the accuracy of the media. What a difference a generation makes.
Of course, one might suggest that Americans didn’t know better, that they just didn’t have access to the variety of content we do today to see the biases or failings.
Or, perhaps, too many people have entered journalism these last 40 years with the desire to change the world rather than report on it. As a young newspaper reporter in the early ’90s, I knew a great many in the profession who wanted to be seen as crusaders, not observers.
Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with crusading — just be honest about it! Perhaps what galls so many is the pretense of objectivity, not really the “bias” of which some complain?
(Some charge conservatives with being overly sensitive to “liberal bias” in the press. Yet the same Gallop poll found that Republicans pay closer attention to news about national events than do Democrats.)
One-time reporter Mark Twain is credited with saying that if “you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”
Over the last decade the Internet has created exciting opportunities for citizen-driven journalism. In this category you can put RedState, AgendaWise, and a great many others with nation, regional or local focus. (Sadly, we recently learned that Texas Watchdog will be closing their doors.)
Some of it comes across as raw information such as postings of open-records requests, videos of events, and the like. Others follow the traditional narrative form of newspapers. Some write dispassionately, others with an edge. Any particular source might be flawed, but many taken together can offer a clearer picture of reality.
For our system of government to be healthy, we need citizens to be informed and engaged on the issues. Clearly, a large majority of Americans don’t think the modern, mainstream press can be trusted with the task. Hopefully new media entrepreneurs in the web-created citizen-journalists will fill that void. We clearly and dearly need them.