A Slap in the Face

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

April 12, 2005

Jim Taricani, a television journalist for an NBC station, was freed last weekend after four months of house arrest for refusing to reveal his sources. And Judith Miller of this newspaper and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine have been ordered to jail for up to 18 months for protecting their sources, although they remain free until their appeals run out.

In short, the climate for freedom of the press in the U.S. feels more ominous than it has for decades. One appropriate response is to protest vociferously and seek the passage of a federal shield law for journalists. But it's also crucial for us to reflect on why this is happening now - and a major reason, I think, is that we in the news media are widely perceived as arrogant, out of touch and untrustworthy.

Judges don't exactly decide cases based on public sentiment, but their decisions do reflect the values of their society. And in our society, public support for the news media has all but evaporated.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center, "Trends 2005," is painful to read. The report says that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago.

In this kind of environment, it's not surprising that journalists are headed for jail. The safety net for American journalism throughout history has been not so much the First Amendment - rather, it's been public approval of the role of the free press. Public approval is our life-support system, and it is now at risk.

Since 1973, the National Opinion Research Center has measured public confidence in 13 institutions, including the press. All of the other institutions have generally retained a good measure of public respect, but confidence in the press has fallen sharply since 1990.

Those of us in the press tend to get defensive about our dwindling credibility. We protest that we've been made scapegoats by partisan demagogues, particularly on the right, and I think that's true. But distrust for the news media, even if it's unfair, is the new reality - and we will have to work much, much harder to win back our credibility with the public.

In any case, it's not just right-wingers who distrust the media these days. The Pew Research Center found that while only 14 percent of Republicans believe all or most of what they read in The New York Times, even among Democrats the figure is only 31 percent. Other major news organizations face the same challenge. The Fox News Channel is considered credible by fewer than one-third of the Republicans - and an even smaller number of Democrats. Indeed, it's a rare news organization that is trusted by more than one-third of the people in either party: the one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the news media are not trustworthy.

I don't see any easy solutions, but print, radio and television all need to take much bolder steps to reconnect with the public.

More openness, more willingness to run corrections, more ombudsmen, more acknowledgement of our failings - those are the kinds of steps that are already under way and that should be accelerated. It would help if news organizations engaged in more outreach to explain themselves, with anchors or editors walking readers through such minefields as why we choose to call someone a "terrorist," or how we wield terms like "pro-life" or "pro-choice."

We also need more diverse newsrooms. When America was struck by race riots in the late 1960's, major news organizations realized too late that their failure to hire black reporters had impaired their ability to cover America. In the same way, our failure to hire more red state evangelicals limits our understanding of and ability to cover America today.

I think we're nuts not to regulate handguns more strictly, but I also think that gun owners have a point when they complain that gun issues often seem to be covered by people who don't know a 12-gauge from an AR-15.

If one word can capture the public attitude toward American journalists, I'm afraid it's "arrogant." Not surprisingly, I think that charge is grossly unfair. But it's imperative that we respond to that charge - not by dismissing it, but by working far more diligently to reconnect with the public.

Unless we can recover the public trust, our protests about reporters' going to jail will come across as self-serving whining. And we'll wake up one day to find ourselves on the wrong side of history.