Media mea culpas don't defuse public discontent

In the struggle to be the best in a 24/7 news cycle, big lessons in objectivity.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CBS's exhaustive self-investigation of the "60 Minutes" segment questioning George W. Bush's National Guard service has done little to satisfy some conservatives. The problem, they say: The report, which probed journalistic failures, didn't find any political bias. Instead it blamed "myopic zeal" fostered by competitive pressures.

Many liberals, meanwhile, remain unsatisfied with the mea culpas offered by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams. He has insisted that his support of the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" education policy was not swayed in any way by the $240,000 he was paid to promote it.

In these highly partisan times, the media, with all their foibles and strengths, continue to lose credibility with the public even as they strive to correct errors. From the thorough housecleaning at The New York Times after the Jayson Blair scandal to the ousting of prominent USA Today reporter Jack Kelley for writing deceptive stories, media outlets are quick to air their dirty laundry in an effort to regain respect. But the self-flagellation appears to have little effect on the public's eroding confidence.

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According to studies by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 38 percent of Americans said they believed political reporting was biased in 1988. Last year, that number had jumped to 58 percent. Part of it is due to the changing nature of cable television. Twenty-four hour cycles leave little time for thoughtful analysis. And then there's what some pundits call the "Fox effect," in which partisan commentary fills the hours between straightforward news segments. Underlying these factors are the continuing commercial pressures that during the past 30 years have transformed once sober and public service-oriented news organizations into key network profit centers, compelled to ratchet up their ratings.

"Opinions about the press have been pretty negative for a pretty long time," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center in Washington. "These incidents are not revelatory for the public, they're confirmatory ... to ordinary Americans. It's pretty much what they expect, unfortunately."

The increasing disillusionment with the media is also fed in part by the burgeoning of the so-called "blogosphere," the Internet-based populist forums where critics of all stripes can air their views, complaints, and biases. Indeed, it was a blog that first questioned the authenticity of the alleged National Guard documents only hours after CBS aired its faulty report on Sept. 8.

That's led some analysts to contend that this could be a watershed moment in the clash between so-called "old media" and the new.

"If I were to be asked what I would do if I were CBS, I would make peace with the bloggers and invite them inside," says Mark Tapscott, director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy in Washington. "News is now a conversation. It is no longer this elite telling us what is important."

Traditional media critics have long called on their colleagues to become much more transparent in their reporting processes. The New Yorker's Ken Auletta notes that even if he refers to anonymous sources in a story - a practice he tries to avoid - his editors and his fact-checkers know exactly who they are.

"Part of the problem is individual responsibility," says Mr. Auletta. "Reporters are responsible for getting things right, or correcting them if they don't, and for being as transparent in our procedures as we call upon business to be in theirs. And we're not."

One of the key findings in the critique of the National Guard segment is that the vetting process used to verify the report within CBS was seriously flawed and that management failed to perform due diligence before airing such a controversial segment about a sitting president.

Four senior newspeople lost their jobs as a result.

CBS's critics believe the firings are a good start. However, they want further changes, including the axing of CBS President Andrew Heyward. "If they want people to consider CBS credible and not liberally biased, CBS will have to do more than they did," says Matthew Sheffield, who writes on a website called RatherBiased.com. "If CBS wants to take partial measures, that's fine, but if there are only partial measures, they only get partial credibility."

Mr. Sheffield also believes that it was wrong for Armstrong Williams to accept money from the Education Department to tout the No Child Left Behind program. "It was wrong for him, and whoever approved the funding at the Department of Education deserves to be fired," he says.

So far, that hasn't happened. And that has angered many journalists on both sides of the political divide.

"I think it's reprehensible, and [Williams] is being disingenuous to say the least - to say, 'Oh, now I realize I'm part of the media elite,' " says Katherine Lanpher, a journalist and cohost on the "Al Franken Show" on Air America Radio, about his insistence that he didn't think he was doing anything wrong in accepting the money. "At least CBS is taking responsibility for what happened. They screwed up, and there were consequences. I don't see anyone on the other side of the aisle doing that."

As for the conservatives' continuing charge that bias did play a part in airing the "60 Minutes" segment, Ms. Lanpher doesn't buy it.

"I really believe as a journalist people do stupid things, and there doesn't have to be political bias behind it," she says.

The media have historically gone through cycles when they've been extremely biased, as at the turn of the 19th century, and others where they've prided themselves on so-called objectivity, a trend that took hold midcentury. It's unclear how this current transition will transform the media in the near term, but analysts say it's critical that they find a way to regain credibility in the eyes of the public.

"There's a divide between the media and the people who read or watch or listen to us," says Auletta. "They don't trust us the way used to and the way they need to in a democracy [where the press] is the tool people use to get the information they need to make decisions."

Ron Scherer contributed to this report.

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