Why should you want to know? Why are you obsessed with fighting, times and fates you can’t defy? If you knew the path we’re riding, you’d understand it less than I. What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening. What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening. These lyrics are from a song from the 1970 rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
The term buzz in this context means a rumor or news about something. It derived from the term a busy rumour which was popularized back in the 1600s. When I think of the term I think of news in general. What’s the buzz, or what’s going on?
Today, trust in the news media is at an all time low. According to a recent Gallup survey, only 13 percent of respondents trust the media a great deal, and 28 percent a fair amount. As would be expected during a Republican administration, when the focus of the media would be on their part, just 15 percent of Republicans, and 36 percent of independents trust the media, while 69 percent of Democrats do.
This is a far cry from 1897, when Virginia O’Hanlon’s father, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, suggested she write to The New York Sun, to ask if there was a Santa Claus. He assured his daughter if you see it in The Sun, it’s so. Today, while many on the left side of the aisle consider New York City’s major broadsheet, The New York Times, the paper of record, its arguable that most on the right believe that they can’t believe a word in the Times, not even the conjunctions.
The decline in the impartiality and trust in media is not news. Media bias is as old as the country itself. The American Revolution did not spring forth because the average colonist was unsupportive of the King. Rather, pamphleteers like Thomas Paine, and Samuel Adams produced sensationalized publications to help whip up support for the Revolution. More famously, after the Revolution, the Founding Fathers fought an ugly newspaper war. In fact, the New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton as a way to support the Federalist demands for a new Constitution.
When I was a young man, the saying was that if Walter Cronkite said something it was true, and pretty much everyone in America got their news from Mr. Cronkite. Today, with the diffusion of media across dozens of television stations, internet news outlets, and yes, a few remaining newspapers, it has become way to easy for outlets to cater to a specific demographic or political ideology.
In 1970, there were over 1,700 daily newspapers in the US. This is down by a third to just around 1,200 today. In 1920, 42.6 percent of U.S. cities had two or more newspapers competing with each other. By 2012, only 32 cities did, and today, there are just 10 cities served by two print daily papers. About half of the counties in the US have no daily newspaper at all. Limited access to local news from different sources and ideologies may be one reason for the distrust in media.
Three other major changes may also be leading to distrust of the news media. First, there are fewer and fewer news bureaus. According to Pew Research Center, between 2003 and 2014, the number of statehouse reporters in state capitals fell by 35 percent. Traditional news media, particularly television news and newspapers, have cut the number and size of news bureaus in recent decades and increasingly rely on cooperative arrangements with counterparts or pools, rather than investigating stories themselves. In addition, news media, is relying more and more on press releases written by public relations firms, or so-called video news releases, that look like stories from reporters, but are actually produced by PR firms.
Along with the decline of competition, reporters and bureaus, has come the elimination of editorial oversight. While traditional media tends to have editorial boards, and professional editors that can help to ensure that reporting is conducted properly and in an unbiased fashion (think Lou Grant), more and more media is simply unedited and unverified fluff written by opinion writers, PR firms and everyday individuals. Many important on-line outlets where people get their news, including important sources like The Huffington Post and Facebook, rely on citizen journalism that basically allows anyone to post anything with little or no fact checking.
Finally, many of the remaining news outlets are owned by entertainment conglomerates and in many ways serve as advertising outlets for entertainment content. ABC News is owned by Disney, Fox News is owned by Fox Corporation and MSNBC is owned by NBC Universal. No wonder that more and more so-called news is focused on celebrity and entertainment.
Today’s distrust of the media is a logical extension of the history of American journalism. And in spite of historical regard for the Fourth Estate, it is probably a healthy distrust as well, since media has always been used as a way to influence the public, often toward good outcomes, but just as often toward bad. Simply put. If you knew the path we’re riding, you’d understand it less than I.