Watching the Watchmen

WATCHING THE WATCHMEN….Jack Shafer, Slate’s media critic, takes on the free floating media contempt that’s now endemic in both the blogosphere and the country at large:

The larger point that the boneheads who so despise the media need to appreciate is that the mainstream American press is better than it’s ever been. If you don’t believe me, visit your local library and roll through a couple of miles of microfilm of the papers you’re currently familiarly with. By any comparison, today’s press is more accurate, ethical, reliable, independent, transparent, and trustworthy than ever. Skepticism is a healthy disposition in life. I wouldn’t be a press critic if I regarded the press as hunky-dory. But mindless skepticism is mainly an excuse for ignorance. Even the people who denounce the New York Times as the bible of liberals ultimately get most of their useful news from it.

I happen to agree with him, but really, the only reason I’m bothering to link to this piece is to raise Bob Somerby’s blood pressure. Somebody’s got to do it, after all.

That aside, Shafer raises two points. First, based on a pair of Pew surveys from 2004 and 2005, he argues that you can’t rely on polls showing that readers find daily newspapers less believable than they used to. After all, the very same polls that show declining believability also show remarkably high levels of favorable opinion toward daily newspapers. Similar dynamics are at work for both local and network TV news, with the favorability/believability gaps getting noticably wider and more puzzling after 2002 in all cases.

Shafer takes this as evidence that reader opinons are untrustworthy. I don’t agree. I think it shows that lots of people just don’t give a damn about believability. As with most blog readers, press consumers generally don’t want the truth, they want their worldview confirmed. My guess is that most Fox viewers, for example, know perfectly well that they’re getting a deliberately slanted viewpoint, but they don’t care. That’s what they want.

Shafer also points out that press dissatisfaction is largely aimed at other people’s media ? it turns out that opinions of their own local newspaper and their own local newscasts is pretty high. As with opinions about schools and congressmen, people mostly think it’s only everybody else’s failings that are ruining things for the rest of us. So perhaps we should take their criticisms with a grain of salt.

Well, perhaps we should. But back on the subject of press quality, I think press critics everywhere would be well advised to take Shafer’s challenge. Before you write another word about how lousy daily newspapers are today, go spend a few days with the microfilm machine at a local library. Read a few months of the Washington Post or Time magazine from the 50s. If that’s not enough to scare you, try Harry Chandler’s LA Times or Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune.

Seriously. Do it. Examine the amount of serious criticism of the government. Examine the use of anonymous sources. Examine the depth of coverage of complex issues. Examine the voice given to non-mainstream sources of information. Examine the institutional biases. And keep in mind that for most people, these were pretty much their only sources of news aside from a bit of radio here and there.

This isn’t an excuse to be Pollyannaish about the modern media. Bias and access journalism are big problems in contemporary newsgathering, as are timidity and plain old ignorance. But if you think modern journalism has tragically Fallen from the imagined heights of some golden age of journalism, try checking out the golden age for yourself. It’s not a pretty sight.