This may come as a surprise to Millennials and Gen Z-ers, but there was a time when most Americans had confidence that the media reported the news "fully, accurately, and fairly."
In 1972, when Gallup first began measuring public attitudes toward the media, 68% of the public said they trusted the credibility of the news industry. In 1976, the year Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards starred in All the President's Men, public trust in the integrity of the media reached a peak of 72%.
But over the next two decades, more and more Americans stopped believing in the trustworthiness of the press. By 1997, confidence in the industry had fallen to 53%. When Gallup tested the question last September, it was down to 41%.
Why so much of the public has turned against the news business isn't hard to figure out: Journalists and the outlets they work for have largely abandoned the ideal of objective, unbiased news coverage. The old attitude that stories should be reported without partisan favor or a political agenda has gone by the boards. For years now, the dominant attitude in newsrooms has been — to quote a 2014 speech by Univision's influential anchor Jorge Ramos — that "the best of journalism happens when we, purposely, stop pretending that we are neutral and recognize that we have a moral obligation to tell truth to power."
Today there is even less of a commitment to objectivity. In a New York Times essay a few weeks ago, reporter Wesley Lowery included himself "among a chorus of mainstream journalists who have called for our industry to abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard." In place of the old journalistic commitment to getting the facts right, the industry nowadays is committed to getting the narrative right. The result is media outlets that make little effort to hide or deny their strong leanings: CNN and The Washington Post tilt sharply to the left, Fox News tilts sharply to the right, and all but the most naïve consumers know that when they tune in to the "news," they are generally getting just one side of the story.
The COVID-19 crisis hasn't altered the public's opinion.
As early as March, Gallup found that while the public was giving high marks to hospitals, schools, and even politicians for their handling of the pandemic, a solid majority — 55% — disapproved of the news media's performance. Four months later, that disapproval continues. According to an Axios/Harris poll released last week, Americans' view of most occupations has improved since the start of the pandemic. For example, public approval of the retail and pharmaceutical industries has climbed 17%. The food and beverage industry is up 23%. Approval of the tech sector has risen 28%; of grocery stores, 35%; and of doctors/nurses/hospitals, 47%. But public approval of the media fell by 5%. Only airlines (down 7%) fared worse.
I see little likelihood that this will change. More and more journalists regard themselves today as troops in the culture war, and their ideological loyalties are reflected in their coverage — not just on the opinion pages, where it's appropriate to take sides, but in the news pages as well. Plainly there is a market for such unbalanced journalism, to judge by the growth in digital media subscriptions. But there doesn't seem to be much respect for it.
America's news business has traveled a long way since the era when Walter Cronkite, who for two decades anchored the CBS Evening News, was regarded as "the most trusted man in America ." In this day and age, news anchors and editors are regarded as partisan combatants, loyal to a political agenda, not to an ideal of fair and objective journalism. Maybe, in some ways, that's for the better. Perhaps with Fox and the New York Times and MSNBC wearing their biases on their sleeves, Americans can bury any illusions they once had about the purity of journalism, and acknowledge that news people are no more committed to impartial truth than advertising copywriters or political consultants.
Who says, after all, that the most trusted figure in America has to be a journalist? If you want someone you can be sure will tell you the truth, there's always Alex Trebek.
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(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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