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The Pew Center for public opinion research has released its September study of public trust in media, and the picture isn’t very pretty. Americans are pessimistic when it comes to the quality of reporting in the corporate press. This should hardly be a surprise considering the extent to which reporting on Iraq and Iran in recent years propagandistically and falsely reported both countries as pursuing and perhaps even possessing nuclear weapons, and the way that reporters muddy the waters of rational debate on important domestic issues such as health care, the economy, the 2008 election, and so on. Most Americans are also weary of the titillating mass media coverage of celebrity gossip, finding these stories to be a diversion from more relevant political issues.
According to the Pew center, public trust in the media is now at its lowest point in the last twenty years, with just 29 percent of Americans seeing news outlets as generally “getting the facts straight” in reporting, and only 18 percent feeling that reporters “deal fairly with all sides” of important political, economic, and social issues. These findings are no revelation considering the longstanding marginalization of progressive-left views in the mass media. What is encouraging, however, is that the general public is finally recognizing this reality in encouraging numbers.
It should come as no surprise that more than six in ten Americans now say that news stories are “often inaccurate.” The mass media shares major responsibility – along with both Democratic and Republican political leaders – for manipulating public opinion in favor of a war in Iraq based upon false WMD-related pretenses. My own study of the New York Times’ reporting on Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, for example, found that 75 percent of news stories only stressed that Iraq possessed WMD and was a threat to the U.S., whereas just 10 percent of stories challenged that claim. This massive imbalance is stark evidence of distorted, propagandistic coverage. The corporate media’s near complete failure (with the exception of groups like Knight Ridder) to challenge the Bush administration’s propaganda on Iraq remains a dark, permanent stain on the record of mainstream journalists and editors.
Of course there’s bound to be a significant amount of partisan hackery uncovered in any study of public opinion of media bias. It is clearly not the case that all those surveyed in the Pew study attack the press because it’s biased against the left and because it depicts U.S. wars as “humanitarian” in intent. Much of the public criticism does come from progressives who are unhappy with sycophantic reporting of both the Obama and Bush administrations, but many criticisms also come from the right, where reporters are typically lambasted as biased against conservatives and in favor of “liberal” perspectives. Revealingly, the percent of Republicans who claim that press criticisms of political officials “do more harm than good” increases when Republicans are in the White House and decreases when Democrats take over. A similar trend is apparent for self-identified Democrats when their party takes over government and is out of power. In other words, many partisan hacks see what they want to see in coverage, and blame the mainstream press for not granting unqualified support to their favored political leaders.
Of all news demographics, Fox News viewers are the most likely to claim that reporters “favor one side,” that “stories are often inaccurate,” and that news coverage is at times “immoral.” Such conclusions are particularly disturbing in light of the fact that conservatives and the far right thoroughly dominate AM radio, retain a very strong presence in national editorials and print media, and enjoy strong a dominant position in cable news. Progressives enjoy no such privileged position in the corporate press. It is extraordinarily rare for public figures such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Patrick and Alexander Cockburn, and many other fine critics of U.S. politics to appear in mainstream news interviews, or to be invited to submit editorials for major newspapers and newsmagazines. Mainstream leftists such as Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and Ed Schultz are allowed to host political programs, while leftists of the Counterpunch and Z Magazine variety are regularly blackballed. Compare this to the treatment of far right ideologues and hate mongers such as Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, who host programs on Fox News, and one begins to see the massive imbalance in corporate media today.
Much of the distrust of media on the right may be based on paranoid delusions of liberal media bias, but this shouldn’t discount the importance of the recent Pew study. A majority of Americans, for whatever reason, are very unhappy with the quality of reporting in the mainstream press. I have long argued that this mass discontent should be used as a rallying cry to build broad support for a non-profit press in which all types of views are protected and guaranteed equal expression. This system would need to incorporate citizen groups of all kinds, which must be guaranteed a spot at the table in journalistic discussions of which stories a public media would cover, and from what perspectives. This program for reform, also supported by visionary media critics like Robert McChesney and John Nichols of Free Press, is something that all Americans should support, regardless of their political leanings. We desperately need media dedicated to public service, free of the dictates of the market pressures that marginalize criticisms of corporate America. Advertisers have long been successful in censoring reporting that’s critical of corporate abuse and corruption. The “free market” outlook supported by journalists and editors also ensures that those critical of corporate capitalism are denied a voice in public policy debates in the mainstream press. The sooner we begin to build broad support for public media, the sooner we can break the stranglehold that corporations enjoy over public discourse.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO teaches American and Global Politics at Illinois State University. He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010). He can be reached at email@example.com