Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters

Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters

Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters

Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters

Synopsis

As recently as the early 1970s, the news media was one of the most respected institutions in the United States. Yet by the 1990s, this trust had all but evaporated. Why has confidence in the press declined so dramatically over the past 40 years? And has this change shaped the public's political behavior? This book examines waning public trust in the institutional news media within the context of the American political system and looks at how this lack of confidence has altered the ways people acquire political information and form electoral preferences.


Jonathan Ladd argues that in the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s, competition in American party politics and the media industry reached historic lows. When competition later intensified in both of these realms, the public's distrust of the institutional media grew, leading the public to resist the mainstream press's information about policy outcomes and turn toward alternative partisan media outlets. As a result, public beliefs and voting behavior are now increasingly shaped by partisan predispositions. Ladd contends that it is not realistic or desirable to suppress party and media competition to the levels of the mid-twentieth century; rather, in the contemporary media environment, new ways to augment the public's knowledgeability and responsiveness must be explored.


Drawing on historical evidence, experiments, and public opinion surveys, this book shows that in a world of endless news sources, citizens' trust in institutional media is more important than ever before.

Excerpt

In the mid-twentieth century, the news media were one of America’s most trusted institutions. The 1956 American National Election Study (ANES) found that 66% of Americans thought newspapers were fair, while only 27% said they were unfair. These views were bipartisan, with 78% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats viewing newspapers as fair. When the Roper Organization asked a similar question about network news in two 1964 polls, 71% and 61% of the public thought it was fair, while just 12% and 17% thought it was unfair. In 1973, when the General Social Survey (GSS) began regularly measuring confidence in various national institutions, only 15% of respondents had “hardly any” confidence in the press.

Prominent journalists were among the most respected figures in the country. A famous 1972 poll found that 72% of Americans trusted CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite, a higher share than any other public figure received in the survey. In 1976, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigations that uncovered the Watergate scandal were dramatized in a movie adaptation of their book All the President’s Men. In the commercially successful film, the journalists were depicted heroically and played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, two of the era’s most charismatic movie stars. In popular culture, journalists were noble defenders of democracy and the public interest.

Today, the news media’s place in society has changed. In the 2008 GSS, the portion of Americans expressing “hardly any” confidence in the press had risen to 45%. A 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education poll found that only 10% of Americans had “a great deal” of confidence in the “national news media,” about the same as lawyers, in whom 9% of Americans had “a great deal” of confidence.

This decline in media trust was accompanied by a fragmentation of the news industry. Once, the media landscape largely consisted of a few national television news networks, local television news, and newspapers. The vast majority of these journalists were committed to a style of “objective” journalism that rose to prominence in the early twentieth century.

See West (2001, 64). Details on the polling results reported in the first three paragraphs of this chapter are provided in chapters 3 and 4.

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