It would appear, according to various surveys, that much of the citizenry is in heartfelt agreement with what Thomas Jefferson said in 1819 about the press. He had become so dismayed and disgusted with American journalism, he wrote in a letter, that he was now reading only one newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer, "and in that chiefly the advertisements, for they contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper."
A recent poll commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors disclosed that three-fourths of American adults do not trust the credibility of those -- in print or on television -- who report the news. And given a list of 10 professions to grade for honesty and ethical standards, the respondents put used-car salesmen at the bottom of the list, immediately preceded by advertising executives, newspaper reporters and newspaper editors.
Much more troubling was the view of the 18-to 24-year-olds polled who think that the press has too much freedom. One or more of them may some day be on the Supreme Court.
The tremors of distrust are such that Editor & Publisher warns in an editorial that the problem is larger than either newspaper or television journalists imagine "and is affecting everyone in the news business." Naturally, there will be a decided increase in journalism conferences on how to restore the people's faith in their guides to what's happening beyond their block.
At the core of hostility to the press is the feeling that it gets away with being arrogant, cruel, biased and contemptuous of everyone's privacy but its own because it never has to suffer for its sins, except in libel suits, and only the rich can afford to bring them. Otherwise, many readers seem to feel, while newspapers and television gleefully expose all kinds of wrongdoing by public officials, hardly anyone continually exposes journalistic malpractice.
Most regular criticism of the press appears in journalism reviews that are read by teachers of the craft and by some journalists, but by exceedingly few members of the general public. A small number of newspapers occasionally do write about the difficulties that other papers get into, but the approach is usually more expository than stingingly investigative. An exception is David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, who takes his press beat seriously enough to treat erring journalists as sternly as he would erring police commissioners. In the majority of those areas with more than one newspaper, however, the competition is never mentioned at all -- unless it burns to the ground or goes out of business some other way.
Television news operations practically never criticize other television stations in town, even when one of them has run a wholly misleading story or even faked a story. The competing national television news organizations are not critical of each other, except off the air. Such behavior on the air would be considered bad form. But what the viewer sees is the press protecting the press. As in the case of newspapers too.
Some newspapers, but far too few, do have ombudsmen, but most of those brave souls focus on complaints against their own newspaper. Accordingly, in a city where one paper has an ombudsman but the other paper and all the television and radio stations do not, the latter can get away with journalistic murder because nobody else in the news business there is going to criticize them publicly.
If, however, newspapers and broadcast stations were to seriously regard the failures of the press as a vital part of the news, investigatory press criticism could finally flourish in the land. And the current low credibility of the press would rise because readers and viewers would see that the remote, imperious Fourth Estate is not immune from accountability after all. Furthermore, the accuracy of the press would improve because no journalist wants to be publicly humiliated -- especially not in a competing newspaper or television newscast -- for playing a story like a bush leaguer.
And it is fascinating for everybody, in and out of the press, to watch a shaper of public opinion -- such as Martin Peretz, proprietor of The New Republic -- act like a red-faced country sheriff when a press critic asks him about reports that he killed an article because printing it might have cost him some lucrative tobacco ads. That illumination was recently part of Eleanor Randolph's Media Notes in this newspaper.
Her observations on the press appear only occasionally, and the rest of the press probably wishes they would appear even less often -- all the more reason to make Media Notes a regular expectation for all the readers without bylines.