There’s No Shield Against Public Anger

Judith Miller, the New York Times, and some members of Congress picked a bad time to make a stand for journalistic integrity.

Miller, a Times reporter, is in jail for not revealing the identity of a White House source in an article (never published) about CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose husband is a vocal critic of the Iraq War. The Times has stood behind 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. However, the U.S. Justice Department announced opposition to the bill Wednesday, 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 due to the news media’s own actions.

A recent Pew Research Center poll shows U.S. press credibility at historic lows. In early June, 56% of randomly sampled U.S. adults said that “[news] stories and reports are often inaccurate,” an increase from 34% of the public who held this view in 1985. Similarly, 72% of Americans today say news organizations “tend to favor one side” when covering political and social issues, up from 53% two decades ago. And 75% of Americans said news organizations’ reporting is most concerned about “attracting the biggest audience,” while only 19% 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 news media cover other social institutions. Journalists are now held to answer for poor reporting and those relatively rare moments when political bias does intentionally enter mainstream news coverage.

In the long run, this scrutiny will be good for news media-but only if they stop making significant mistakes in their rush to be the first to publish or broadcast. For example, Judith Miller’s current standing is substantially undercut by her own 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.

This was acknowledged in 1992 by Rich Bond, then chair of the Republican Party, who said, “There is some strategy to it. … If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.” And GOP strategist William Kristol in 1995 told The New Yorker, “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 not long ago 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 as inherently biased help Republicans to dismiss the democratic value of the Fourth Estate-as the Justice Department did Wednesday.

Finally, since the attacks of September 11, 2001, it is apparent that a growing segment of the U.S. public believes the press should be distinctly pro-American. For example, the Pew data show that 40% of U.S. adults think the press is “too critical of America,” up from 17% 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 September 11 the channel has contained 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 in years since.

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, a former journalist, is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and head of journalism at the University of Washington. He is the author of God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror,” and the Echoing Press (Pluto Press, 2004). They can be reached at: domke@u.washington.edu

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