I was recently confronted with a “Hey, did you know?” question to which the honest reply would have been, “No, I didn’t.”
What I didn’t know, apparently, was that Al Franken, D-Minn., stole his election to the Senate. Franken, you might recall, beat Republican Norm Coleman by a hair in November and then had to wait out a six-month legal challenge before taking his seat.
I knew for a fact only three things about the Franken-Coleman contest: There was the usual chin-stroking over the integrity of the recount; Coleman took a beating in the courtroom; and a lot of conservatives were offended that a former comedy writer and liberal commentator challenged a Republican incumbent and had the temerity to win.
Beyond that, I admit, I had no idea what happened in Minnesota. Nonetheless, when my interlocutor insisted it was common knowledge that an act of electoral theft had been perpetrated, I replied, without missing a beat, “That’s not true.”
I’m not going to re-argue the Franken-Coleman recount or attempt to prove to you that I’m correct about the outcome. That would require mining the journalistic record for the most learned and evenhanded coverage. I’ve already done that, and I’m here to tell you it was a waste of time — nothing was going to convince my antagonist that Franken beat Coleman fair and square.
And there’s a good chance you wouldn’t accept my evidence either.
According to a recent study released by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, nearly two out of three Americans — 67 percent — don’t trust journalists to get their facts straight. That’s approaching a 180-degree turnabout since Pew published the first of its biennial “Public Evaluation of the News Media” in 1985; back then, only 34 percent said they couldn’t always believe what they read and heard in the news.
Widespread distrust is certainly a problem for journalism. But is journalism the problem? Of course; but readers and viewers, many of whom are unwilling to accept news that conflicts with their view of the world, must share the blame — and, more importantly, be part of the solution.
Consider the good news in the Pew study: People seem to trust the journalism they are closest to — their local TV stations and daily newspapers.
This is good to know. People rely on local media to help them navigate issues that actually mean something every day — taxes, public safety, the new housing project up the street. Quality of life is what people think about when they aren’t watching FOX News or reading The New York Times. That a majority of people believe local news outlets are worthy partners in the pursuit-of-happiness business says something good about them and about journalism.
I’m not sure where to begin with the national news media, except with the worn observation that it has done a great job of confusing people about journalism.
What can viewers make of a cable network that debunks the “birther” movement in a news report then, in the next hour, broadcasts a show devoted to “exploring” the baseless charge that Barack Obama was born in Kenya? What must readers think of a national newspaper that admits its television critic is so error-prone she needs a personal editor? She may be a television critic, but she works — still — for an organization hailed as the “paper of record.”
Those are just two recent examples of how journalism fails to live up to its own ideals. Along with many others, large and small, they do more than cause people to question the reliability of the news.
In the 2007 book “What Good is Journalism?,” MU professors George Kennedy and Glen Cameron published their research into public “perceptions of and experience with journalism.” After talking to 495 people, they concluded, “the relationship between Americans and journalism is a complicated mix of appreciation, dependence, anger and distrust.”
Again, this is a problem for journalism. But is journalism the problem?
Consider how this “complicated mix” might explain journalism’s biggest liability — the perception of bias.
It might if, like me, you’ve noticed that many people fail to make the distinction among news, commentary and outright provocation. It might if, like me, you’ve noticed that discussions about current events are often less about the news and more about who reported it.
This was inevitable. The national news media commit acts of quality journalism more often than we admit. But news organizations also exploit the human tendency to construct our own individual reality by playing to the biases of their audience. It’s been good for business but bad for journalism.
Implicit in studies like the Pew Center’s is the question of what can be done. Journalists have taken steps, such as being more transparent about how they gather the news and why they think it’s important. They’re also listening more to their readers and viewers.
That’s a start. But shouldn’t readers and viewers step it up a notch as well? Perhaps by accepting that the purpose of journalism is not to tell you what you want to hear? After all, you need it: Of the people Kennedy and Cameron talked to, 75 percent said journalism helped them think about and understand public issues.
And, as the Pew Center points out in its analysis of local media, you know when it’s being done right.
Brian Wallstin is a Columbia resident and a former city editor for the Missourian. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.