Journalism, according to the renowned media scholar and historian Sean Hannity, is dead.
Of course, the Fox News host and Donald Trump disciple also described White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s opening-day debacle as “awesome.”
No, journalism is far from dead — as anybody who has followed the investigative reporting of The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, for one, can attest — but it sure has taken a number of body blows. And some are self-inflicted.
One of the worst: the sharp drop in public trust. Now, with a media-bashing president presenting a threat to press freedom, we need to get it back.
“Maybe this situation calls for a return to the old view, which asks for less analysis and more reporting, less personality and more facts,” said David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who spent 25 years in Washington with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for history-conscious political columns.
Consider: The last time trust in the media was sky-high was in the mid-1970s. Back then, more than seven in 10 Americans gave reporters and editors the thumbs-up, according to studies. (It has been sinking ever since, dropping to 32 percent last year, according to a Gallup poll.)
The Pentagon Papers, which told the disturbing truth about the government’s handling of the Vietnam War, had been published — thanks to the whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and the courage of publishers Katharine Graham of The Post and Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger of the New York Times.
And, about the same time, The Post had investigated the crimes of the Richard Nixon administration. Nixon had resigned.
The public clearly believed that the press represented their interests and worked on citizens’ behalf to get the truth out.
That’s still what people want from the news media.
Amid all the depressing numbers in media-trust studies, one statistic shines like a beacon: Three of four Americans give the media credit for keeping public officials from wrongdoing.
“The watchdog role has stayed consistently high,” said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center.
But, she added, “there is this conundrum: As high as the numbers are for watchdog work, there are also high numbers of those who see bias.” That hurts trust, she said.
Decades ago, the media landscape was far less cluttered: Three TV networks, the family-owned national newspapers, and local newspapers and TV stations, gorging themselves at a well-filled advertising trough. Breitbart, CNN, Huffington Post, the Drudge Report didn’t exist.
There’s no going back — and we shouldn’t want to. We’re far better off with the multitude of choices and voices, and the far-reaching distribution of the digital age.
But there may be something to learn anyway.
“What we don’t need now is pure stenography, but we also don’t need what the Nixon people derided as instant analysis,” Shribman said. “ ‘Just the facts’ should be less a slogan than a reality.”
Then again, the too-neutral “view from nowhere” approach that informs old-school journalism has its critics. Journalists, they say, should declare their biases up front to engender reader trust.
As Mitchell noted, “This is a divided America, and the public is going to pick and choose their news sources based on ideology.”
But amid this disagreement, there is a clear consensus on yet another point, among not only journalists but also the public. More than three in four Americans want the media to “emphasize inaccurate statements,” Pew reports.
They want journalists to call out falsehoods — lies — clearly. That flies in the face of Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s testy directive last week that the media “keep its mouth shut,” after widespread condemnation — in the fact-based world — of Trump’s bogus claims of widespread voter fraud.
As sellers of George Orwell’s “1984” struggle to keep up with demand, there’s renewed hunger for truth-seeking reporting. Citizens are opening their pocketbooks to keep it alive.
Subscriptions have soared at the Times and The Post, and donations have poured in to nonprofit organizations to support investigative reporting or defend press rights.
The stakes are high. When trust weakens in core institutions, authoritarian government can get a foothold.
Trust in journalism may never get back to the post-Watergate level. But by holding government accountable, emphasizing accuracy and standing firm for factual reality, we can regain some of what’s lost.
And, just maybe, help save democracy.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan