Widespread public distrust of the media already has had an economic impact -- reducing readership and audiences. The next question is even bigger: How long before public unhappiness translates into a serious legal threat to the media?
Surveys over recent years show public confidence in, and approval of, American media decreasing steadily and substantially. We in the media wring our hands over this, but often seem curiously disinclined to connect it with any actions of our own.
Think of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which had so many in the public angry about a runaway press. Those most involved in covering the scandal largely continue to think of it as a great journalistic moment. They hasten to note that the reported facts generally proved out -- there was a blue dress! But unfairness and imbalance, insufficient sourcing, meanness in tone and spirit and hugely disproportionate play loom much larger.
As we in the media bumble along, anxious and defensive, growing public dissatisfaction seems to be moving beyond an economic response toward a legal one. Recently the Freedom Forum took a look at public views on the First Amendment guarantee of a free press. The news was chilling. More than half those surveyed said the press has "too much freedom." Nearly a third said the First Amendment "goes too far in the rights it guarantees." Both judgments have gained substantially since the last survey two years ago.
As Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman, wrote in analyzing the poll results, "A variety of studies, surveys, and focus groups document a real resentment of the press and its practices among Americans, who characterize the news media as arrogant, inaccurate, superficial, sensational, biased and bent. Worse, they apparently believe that the press is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution."
This view is supported by other studies, including one earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Respondents saying the media protect democracy dropped from 54 percent in 1985 to 45 percent now. Conversely, 38 percent said that the media hurt democracy, up from only 23 percent in 1985.
First Amendment lawyer Bruce Sanford of Washington has a new book called "Don't Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us." He sees worrisome signs in the stagnation of First Amendment law, in huge libel verdicts and in the fact that much more attention is now given to media mistakes than previously.
Sanford writes of "the wretched excesses and foolish pride of a gigantic media institution that overwhelms our public life, just as it becomes more irrelevant and an object of ridicule in our personal lives."
As McMasters wrote in his analysis of the Freedom Forum's survey, "The coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair seemed to crystallize the public's acute dissatisfaction with the press." In support of his view, consider the reaction to this statement on the survey: "Journalists should be allowed to investigate the private lives of public figures." Only 17 percent strongly agreed; 42 percent strongly disagreed.
There is plenty of self-examination going on in the media, but few concrete solutions are posed. Publisher Steven Brill, of the media magazine Brill's Content, recently offered one. In the wake of the excesses of coverage of the John Kennedy tragedy, Brill sent a letter to hundreds of news organizations proposing voluntary self-restraints on invasion of privacy. He included this commitment:
"To protect the privacy of grieving families, our news organization will not publish current photographs or show current video images of family members who have lost a loved one within one week following the death of that loved one, nor will we post reporters or photographers outside their homes, at the funeral, or in other places where we can accost them for views or photographs without their permission."
Prominent media leaders have responded with discomfort at group regulation. As Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time magazine, put it: "I'm opposed to the concept of industry-adopted rules and guidelines."
The American press is schooled to maintain independence and to brave criticism in the interest of the free flow of information. But too often these days we just look as if we're ignoring criticism in order to go on behaving shabbily. The result is erosion of the support that makes freedom of the press possible.
The public makes a simple bargain with the press: As long as you nurture rather than undermine democracy, we'll back you. Individually or collectively, we've got to uphold our end.