Top journalists and pundits at a forum Tuesday morning blamed technology and partisan activism for their industry's poor reputation with the public, downplaying any culpability the media itself may have.
The seminar, which was hosted by the Washington Post, was informative and entertaining. Many good points were made by the guest speakers, which included Fox News’ Bret Baier, PBS’ Judy Woodruff, White House Correspondent April Ryan, and The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes.
But apart from Hayes and a few stray comments from certain speakers, the seminar seemed largely uninterested in exploring the many journalism missteps that have contributed to the gradual erosion of trust in our press. At times, the speakers seemed concerned with everything but the media's own bungles.
Woodruff, for example, explained that there are simply too many news sources today, and that it’s more difficult now for audiences to distinguish between what is legitimate and what isn’t. She also blamed what she said is a cottage industry built around criticizing the press and presenting it as suspect. She also blamed cable news for exacerbating polarization.
Ryan complained separately that there has been a general lowering of journalistic standards – not by the professionals but by amateurs.
“Journalism 101 has been thrown out of the window,” she said, adding that there are now so many citizen journalists who think they can just come to the White House and report.
Columnist Indira Lakshmanan also blamed cable news, claiming it has “contributed to distrust” in media. She added that it’s also “problematic” to have people like Rush Limbaugh on one side and Democracy Now! on the other creating ideological bubbles where competing ideas are unwelcome.
Others, including New York University’s Jay Rosen, BuzzFeed's Craig Silverman, and Center for Democracy and Technology CEO Nuala O’Connor, argued that Facebook has grown too large, that it spreads too much “fake news” and that its detrimental effect on the news industry has reached a tipping point.
These points are all true. Polarization has hurt the news industry. Partisan activists have taken advantage of this distrust. Standards have been lowered.
But we're going to miss a massive piece of the puzzle here in figuring out why people distrust us if we gloss over our own failings.
Things like the 2004 Killian papers controversy, which ended Dan Rather's career, did far more to damage this industry's overall reputation than any single "fake news" attack from Trump. The fact that Rather has been welcomed back into this industry, appearing often on the cable news talking head circuit to offer up advice like some sort of wise media sage, does nothing to inspire trust or dispel the notion that the press is like a bizarre offshoot of academia, where any misdeed can be forgiven so long as a professor has the correct politics and tenure.
Let's not forget that Katie Couric suffered exactly zero professional repercussions after it was revealed that her anti-Second Amendment documentary, “Under the Gun,” was deceptively edited in order to make a Virginia gun rights activist look foolish. She will now co-host the Olympics opening ceremony this year in Pyeongchang, South Korea. How's that for accountability?
And this is to say nothing of the many embarrassing political journalism flops of 2017, almost none of which erred in favor of the president.
As Hayes remarked, there's a reason why conservatives have been screaming about this exact topic for decades. If this industry really wants to address the issue of declining trust, perhaps now is the time for everyone to ask: “Why are they complaining about this?”
The Washington Post-hosted seminar comes after a major survey conducted by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that most Americans still believe the press plays an important role in preserving the republic, and that they think it is doing its job poorly.
A whopping 84 percent said “news media have a critical or very important role to play in democracy, particularly in terms of informing the public.” But only a tiny 28 percent of those people think this industry is “supporting democracy.” The Knight Foundation/Gallup survey on trust, media, and democracy polled more than 19,000 U.S. adults between Aug. 4 and Oct. 2, 2017.