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Press Gets Blame for Public Cynicism

Trust in public figures falls; some say journalists are too negative

By Lawrence J. GoodrichStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 1995



BOSTON

TRUE or false?: The American press has become so cynical that it is damaging the country's political system.

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True, says Thomas Patterson, a political science professor at Syracuse University in New York. ''I think [press cynicism] has contributed significantly to an erosion of public trust in government,'' he says.

False, says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. ''It's a great exaggeration and oversimplification,'' he says. ''Americans think what they do because of their own experience, not because of the media.''

The argument about whether the news media, print and broadcast, is undermining American institutions is not new. But a new round of the debate has broken out among journalists and those who closely monitor their work.

In December, reporter Adam Gopnik complained in The New Yorker magazine that ''A media that in its upper, more self-conscious reaches ... once dealt in quiet signals now sounds loud and acts mean.''

Paul Starobin, a National Journal reporter, also pointed to cynicism in the March issue of the Columbia Journalism Review: ''Press cynicism is clearly a real problem -- certainly a problem in Washington.''

And these views were boosted last week with the release of a survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. In the poll, journalists agreed that the press is too cynical. But the big surprise was that members of the public surveyed were even more cynical about public figures than the press was.

Since the development of modern American journalism in the mid-19th century, journalists have always prided themselves on having a ''healthy skepticism'' of the statements and actions of the people they were covering.

But the degree of this skepticism varied widely. In the first six decades of this century, the national press had a fairly close relationship with government officials, right up to the president.

That relationship was badly tattered by official deception and misinformation during the Vietnam War, but it was destroyed by the Watergate affair. Since then, some say, the press has migrated from skepticism to outright and destructive cynicism. Mr. Gopnik calls it ''a willingness to ascribe base motives to anyone who happens to be the object of attention.''

''Previously, journalists were too willing to take the word of people in power. They didn't do enough investigative work,'' says Ellen Hume, a media analyst for the Annenberg Washington Program and former Wall Street Journal reporter. ''But that said, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction....''

Mr. Patterson, the author of the 1993 book ''Out of Order,'' which details his research on the press and public attitudes, says the constant drumbeat of negative coverage of government erodes public faith in democratic institutions.

It's also downright inaccurate, he charges. Congress passed 88 percent of the legislation President Clinton proposed in his first two years, according to Congressional Quarterly. It is the highest since Lyndon Johnson's in 1965, Patterson says. Yet 75 percent of the stories on Mr. Clinton were negative, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

''I'd be hard pressed to find a congressional leader who has pushed as much legislation through Congress [as Speaker Newt Gingrich], yet he gets negative coverage,'' Patterson says, noting that 70 percent of stories on the Speaker have been negative. ''Something's out of whack. Media reality and reality reality don't match up.''

Patterson also found that if a negative story about a politician or an institution popped up in one major national outlet, like the New York Times, Washington Post, or the three big network-news shows, it was soon found in the others. ''But if something positive was found, it wasn't in any of the others. Good news just doesn't get picked up like negative news.''

The effect of all this, Patterson says, is that negative coverage soon turns into public disapproval in the polls. Patterson says he has ''looked at the long-term trend of news coverage and documented that it got more negative from the 1960s on.... The press is not only negative, but increasingly negative, and that tracks with what the public is thinking.''