Media share blame for bad news


JUDITH MILLER, The New York Times and some members of Congress picked a bad time to make a stand for journalistic integrity.

Ms. Miller, a Times reporter, is in jail for not revealing the identity of a White House source in the case of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose husband is a vocal critic of the Iraq war. The Times has stood behind Ms. Miller, declaring that the relationship between reporters and sources requires sacred trust.

In response, a bipartisan bill now in Congress would compel journalists to testify only when "imminent and actual harm to national security" is at stake. More than 80 media groups have endorsed it. But the Justice Department announced opposition to the bill, calling it "bad public policy" that would harm the administration's ability to "enforce the law and fight terrorism."

Journalists and their congressional supporters are almost certain to lose this battle, partly because of the news media's own actions.

A recent Pew Research Center poll shows U.S. press credibility at historic lows. In early June, 56 percent of randomly sampled U.S. adults said that "[news]stories and reports are often inaccurate," an increase from 34 percent of the public who held this view in 1985.

Meanwhile, 72 percent of Americans today say news organizations "tend to favor one side" when covering political and social issues, up from 53 percent two decades ago. And 75 percent of Americans said news organizations' reporting is most concerned about "attracting the biggest audience," while only 19 percent said it was "keeping the public informed."

Three factors explain such low media credibility.

First, Internet blogs and media watchdog groups, representing all sides of the political spectrum, have turned the spotlight on journalists' actions in much the same way that the news media cover other social institutions. Journalists are now held to answer for poor reporting and those relatively rare moments when political bias intentionally enters mainstream news coverage.

In the long run, this scrutiny will be good for the news media, but only if they stop making significant mistakes in their rush to be the first to publish or broadcast.

For example, Ms. Miller's current standing is substantially undercut by her record, which includes pre-Iraq war reporting on weapons of mass destruction that has subsequently been discredited by her own newspaper, which now stands by her. Talk about a mixed message on journalism standards.

Second, political conservatives have mounted a concerted assault on news organizations, wielding the epithet of "the liberal media." While such claims have been around since at least the 1950s, research I undertook with academic colleagues shows that this rhetoric increased markedly beginning in the late 1980s. The accusations are used strategically by Republican Party leaders to discredit and stem critical news coverage.

Republican strategist William Kristol told The New Yorker in 1995: "I admit it. The whole idea of the 'liberal media' was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."

The strategy has worked well. Chris Ison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, told me that criticism by political conservatives has led to a paralyzing "hyper-sensitivity" among journalists about appearing balanced in news stories. Further, claims of news media bias help Republicans to dismiss the democratic value of the Fourth Estate, as the Justice Department did.

Finally, since 9/11, it is apparent that a growing segment of the public believes the press should be distinctly pro-American. For example, the Pew data show that 40 percent of U.S. adults think the press is "too critical of America," up from 17 percent in November 2001. Put simply, many Americans see no conflict between simultaneous wishes for press independence and a pro-U.S. perspective.

We might call this the "Fox effect." The Fox News Channel came into existence in 1996 and bills itself as "fair and balanced." Since 9/11, the channel has put a waving U.S. flag in the television screen's corner and has unabashedly championed the international and military policies of the Bush administration. The public's response is clear: Fox surpassed CNN as the ratings leader among cable news channels in late 2001 and has extended its lead since then.

The desire for pro-American news produces this outcome: When news content is critical of U.S. actions, many Americans become angry with the press rather than the government. In other words, the public becomes likely to shoot the messenger. It would help if the news media stopped providing ammunition.

David Domke, an associate professor in the department of communication and head of journalism at the University of Washington, is the author of God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the "War on Terror," and the Echoing Press.

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