There are few media metrics that point in an upward direction these days. Disdain of the press is one of them. Thirty-six percent of Americans now say that the press "hurts" democracy. Many others wouldn't express their feelings in quite such violent terms but share the basic disrespectful sentiment. Put another way, the crisis in journalism is even deeper than the crisis in its business model. It is suffering a crisis of legitimacy.
We all know the long list of scandals that has bloodied the profession--from Jayson Blair to Judith Miller to Dan Rather. But to focus only on these wrecks both misses the point and blames the victim. Just as the press has been slammed by the tides of technology, it has been hit hard by the political culture. The master narratives of both the right and the left have come to include the same villain: the hypocritical, biased elite media. And their combined grouching has helped foment the anti-media backlash.
On the right, the history of press-bashing is venerable--Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs" and all that. But during the Bush years, and thanks to Fox News, the critique of the liberal media was canonized, beginning with the charge that the media abetted Al Gore's efforts to steal the Florida recount. Bernard Goldberg's Bias is in many (all unfortunate) ways a defining text of the times. A former CBS reporter, Goldberg claimed to have provided a firsthand account of his colleagues' disgraceful manipulation. "[Journalistic] elites are hopelessly out of touch with everyday Americans. Their friends are liberals, just as they are," he wrote. "After a while they start to believe that all civilized people think the same way they and their friends do." Following Bias's leap to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, Bush was photographed walking with Goldberg's screed tucked under his arm.
A mirror version of this critique emerged on the left. In this telling, it was the timid, lazy press corps that failed to rigorously challenge the president's core (mendacious) claims about his tax cuts and rationale for heading to war. Very valid criticisms. But these specific objections morphed into populist broadsides against what the left came to describe as "the mainstream media"--avatars of establishmentarian groupthink who bend to the latest conventional wisdom emerging from D.C. cocktail parties and neurotically fret that they might be just as biased as their conservative critics allege. On The Huffington Post and its ilk, you would find rants about how "Beltway media really makes no effort to do anything other than parrot totally out-of-touch conventional wisdom--no matter how inane, stupid and ridiculous it is."
This rhetoric creates a poisonous atmosphere. By assaulting the credibility of the press, it destroys its authority in the culture, giving cover to politicians who would rather avoid dealing with reporters in the first place. The most egregious example, of course, is the Bush administration, whose chief of staff Andy Card once told The New Yorker that the press doesn't "represent the public any more than other people do." He added, "I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function." And that was precisely the spirit that guided Bush's refusal to release critical documents and his decision to hold presidential press conferences only rarely. When the administration needed to make its case, it took to the local press or Fox News, where it had no fear of probing questions.
At times, Obama has hinted that he will borrow from the Bush playbook and deal with the press only as he pleases, using new technology to vault over the old arbiters. Fortunately, that hasn't been his methodology in recent weeks; instead, he has revived the Freedom of Information Act, sat for many interviews, and even ventured to dinner at George Will's house. This is fortunate, because Obama is presiding over a turning-point moment in media history.
Obama can help set a tone for liberals, convincing them to ratchet down their hostility to newspapers and begin crusading on behalf of these imperiled organizations. The media deserves liberal critics, who hold it accountable. But it also deserves liberal defenders because a press working toward the ideal of objectivity is often the only means of blunting government or business run amok. (See Paul Starr's "Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers," page 28, for an eloquent account of the catastrophic consequences that will follow the mainstream media's collapse.) Even the press's fiercest critics have been forced to acknowledge and fear its findings--an authority that will never exist in a world consisting entirely of partisan outlets. That's why Andy Card's old boss was ultimately forced to concede the existence of torture and black sites and the shame of Walter Reed.
Many venerable newspapers and magazines will close in the coming weeks and months; the ones that remain will be attenuated. But the old ideals embodied in these institutions must not be permitted to join the carnage.
By The Editors