As any member of the press should, or must, know, we've had our troubles with the public long before the problems over faked stories, composite characters, secret sources and superheated war correspondence that turns out to be more fictional than factual.
Much of the criticism falls into predictable categories: the press is too powerful, too biased, too liberal, too sensational, too superficial, too elitist, too scandalous and all the other too-much-thises and too-much-thats.
Cottage industries have sprung up around the subject. Concerned citizens are on the watch for our sins, and properly so. Organized groups, some operating with clear, strong political and ideological motivations, have been formed to monitor our performance.
Some of the criticism is justified, some useful, some wrong and some deliberately calculated to destroy the press's essential function as watchdog over the inevitable abuses of power, whether political, economic or social, that occur.
But another kind of concern exists that is, I'm convinced, deeper, more widely held and more troubling. It is an attitude about the press that you hear expressed from so many different individuals -- a basic, profound distrust. Distrust and something more: a genuine lack of understanding of the press that intensifies doubts about its functions.
Usually these concerns are only vaguely defined. Something's wrong, people will say. Or, Something doesn't make sense, they'll add. Rarely do you get a coherent expression of what precisely bothers them most about the press.
Here, though, courtesy of a reader in Southern California, is a view that I suspect comes close to the heart of the difficulty between press and public. This man writes because he is struck by "the distance that separates journalists from their readers."
What he has to say may not put at all the concerns together, but I believe his words are worth pondering by press and public alike. Herewith, Exhibit A, in the case of the People v. the Press.
"Something is embedded in the mind of the journalism student that we as readers never quite understand. A something that takes on the urge to write about a subject, or perhaps more accurately an object (and I will get to that adjective later) in a way that portrays it as the journalist wants to be seen.
"Maybe that isn't entirely fair since it ascribes an intent. Perhaps it is simply a matter of the journalist being an observer only, as opposed to a doer, and thereby never feels quite the same feeling or perception as the doer. d
"By any definition, whatever it is that persuades journalists that theirs is a messianic mission to superintend the earth, that ragged line that separates observer from doer, the final product of their effort sometimes baffles those of us who took up a different course of study. We are not certain you saw the same event we did.
"Journalists distort, if by no other way than printing the same set of facts over and over and over, and thereby providing an unwarranted emphasis. I take this example because it is almost a daily occurence.
"They are also selective in what they choose to write about and the manner in which they present it. I guess that is more of the who, what, where, when and why that the rest of us do not understand, or how do you explain the same subject receiving dissimilar treatment in competing papers or journals? Perhaps that is the answer; competing, as in any commercial enterprise, and you must find some way to encourage me to buy your paper rather than your competitor's.
"I am not suggesting that you or anyone else would intentionally distort or misrepresent, but there is clearly an abundance of reasons to do so if, of course, you wish to outsell The New York Times.
"Well, I suppose the owner of a paper can print whatever material on whatever subjects he damn well chooses, and in whatever manner he damn well pleases. I think that is called editorial policy. Human nature being what it is, and the commercial comeptitive need being what it is, well, draw your own conclusions.
"Mr. Johnson, if I have scolded, I apologize, if for no other reason than I seriously doubt that any of us would be much different, if at all.You see, I have been on this planet long enough to be able to sort out a few things in the daily life, and newspaper people have feet of clay like the rest of us. The big difference is that we cannot stomp on others the way the press does. I am glad we have a free press, but just like the ACLU, the press causes an awful lot of mischief.
"I have purposely avoided television news because in that respect I share the view of Richard Nixon. In his book "The Real War" he observed that "television is to news what bumper stickers are to philosophy." A very fitting comment."
The writer waited two weeks, and then added this postscript before mailing his letter:
"I hesitated in sending this for several reasons. First, it is poorly written, and second, because you are not apt to be interested in the first place. Perhaps that sums up the fundamental basis for the distrust most of us feel for journalists. We do not understand your rules, and in response you [journalists] do not really care."
I don't have to agree with all his points to feel that he has struck some uncomfortable truths and defined a large part of the problem.