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Poll finds high level of distrust in the media. Anybody surprised?

A new Gallup survey finds most Americans have little or no trust in the media, especially Republicans and independents. Is this a dangerous trend in a democracy reliant on public information?

By Staff writer / September 23, 2012

This 2010 photo shows Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and political pundit Bill O'Reilly during an interview for "The O'Reilly Factor" on FOX News Channel, in New York. O'Reilly and Stewart will face off for a special 90-minute debate about the 2012 presidential race on Oct. 6.

Peter Kramer/AP

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To those of us in the news biz, the headline on a new Gallup survey was dispiriting, to say the least: “U.S. Distrust in Media Hits New High”

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“Americans' distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60 percent saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly,” Gallup reported Friday. “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.”

That’s a far cry from the 1970s, when Gallup asked the question three times and found trust in the media as high as 72 percent.

It also means that “negativity toward the media is at an all-time high for a presidential election year,” according to Gallup, which is “particularly consequential at a time when Americans need to rely on the media to learn about the platforms and perspectives of the two candidates vying to lead the country for the next four years.”

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There’s a definite political tilt to such findings.

Trust in the media – defined as having a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust – is very low among Republicans (26 percent) and independents (31 percent), considerably higher among Democrats (58 percent). Paradoxically, Republicans are the partisan group most likely to be paying close attention to news about national politics, Gallup finds.

How have things changed since the media’s relative glory days in the '70s and earlier?

Back then, most Americans relied on local newspapers and such much-admired TV broadcasters as Walter Cronkite and Howard K. Smith, whose veracity was rarely questioned. When Mr. Cronkite ended his broadcasts with his signature “and that’s the way it is,” most of us believed him.

Vietnam and Watergate changed that to some extent. (It changed Cronkite, who publicly turned against the Vietnam War.) So did the civil rights movement and the push for gender equality. Establishment thinking and policies came under greater scrutiny, and conventional beliefs were challenged.

Fast-forward to the present, and the source of news (perhaps that should be “news”) has exploded. Many fewer newspapers, but a lot more cable television, radio and TV talk shows, news-based entertainment (Jon Stewart), partisan and ideological web sites, and so many bloggers that it brings to mind the old saw about monkeys and typewriters – what Chris Gaither and Susannah Rosenblatt writing in the Los Angeles Times several technological generations ago (2005) called “the uncensored bastions of ideological chest-thumping.”

Back to that partisan split in perceptions about trust in the media. Are reporters and editors, broadcasters and producers biased in a liberal direction? Is that why Democrats are more likely to trust the press?

That’s certainly the perception among many conservatives. How many times has Sarah Palin decried the “lamestream media?”

The mainstream media these days is nothing if not self-examining.

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