It was the worst of times, and the best of responses for the media. According to one poll, fully 85 percent of Americans approved of the way that journalists were doing their jobs in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.
Now the times are better, what with American troops apparently routing the Taliban and no further incidents of domestic terrorism having occurred on a large scale. But the responses for the media are worse. The latest Gallup poll reports that 57 percent of Americans now disapprove of the way journalists are doing their jobs.
For one thing, Americans united so suddenly and passionately that they began to see normal journalistic procedures as abnormal. The hard-hitting question that people would have applauded when asked of Gary Condit became an unpatriotic question when asked of Donald Rumsfeld. The balanced report that people would have commended when the topic was violence in the Gaza Strip became a biased report when the topic was civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The anchorman’s lapel that nobody even noticed before the World Trade Center was destroyed became the focus of all eyes after the towers crumbled; the absence of a flag pin was perceived as the absence of pride in nation.
In other words, people got demanding.
And then journalists got antsy. They carefully reported that President Bush and other administration spokespeople were calling for patience, and then turned less and less patient themselves. With so little to report in the first few weeks of the fighting, which is to say, with so little conclusive information being provided by military sources, the press corps began relying on opinions rather than facts, in some cases going so far as to write stories comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam — this after U.S. troops had been engaged in the former country less than two weeks! A "think" piece, this kind of reportage is called; its main characteristic, in all too many cases, is its thoughtlessness.
And so the 85 percent affirmative quickly melted into a cold, brown puddle of 57 percent negative.
Steve Friedman, the executive producer of CBS’s The Early Show, and a friend of mine going back more than twenty years, was recently asked about the latter figure. "Well," he said, "our job is not to be popular. Our job is to ask questions, and I think when you ask some tough questions, all of the sudden people think you’re not patriotic. I think it is patriotic to ask tough questions, and I think our approval rating will continue to go down as we ask tougher and tougher questions."
He has a point.
But so do I when I take issue with him on two grounds. First, a lot of those tough questions have no chance of being answered. Ask Rumsfeld or Powell or Rice or Bush the toughest question in the world about military strategy or prosecution of terrorists or the government of post-war Afghanistan, and if he or she doesn’t want to answer the question, he or she will not. And the reporter knows it; the question becomes, thus, a vocal exercise for him, a means of getting air time, not information.
Second, Friedman implies that journalists have to go ahead and ask those tough questions regardless of how it affects their popularity. But if a particular news organization asks questions that offend too many people, if it loses too much popularity, how can it claim to serve the public? Put it another way: if a journalist reports on his news program and no one listens, is it journalism?
So it is that the media have to find a way, difficult as it seems, to keep the audience mollified at the same time that they keep it informed.
But there is an even larger problem here. It is the continuing deterioration in the relationship between media and audience. The obvious solution is a compromise, for the former to be more factual and the latter to be more trusting, for the former to be less adversarial and the latter less judgmental, for the former to think less career of advancement and the latter to think less about the former’s damn lapels.
If Republicans and Democrats can come together in a time of crisis, if the U.S. and numerous foreign countries can also unite under pressure, why can’t the reporter and the people to whom he reports?
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .