Don't Blame It on Jayson Blair

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When the New York Times's Jayson Blair was busted for plagiarism and fabrications — and then its star writer Rick Bragg was suspended and quit after claiming an intern's reporting as his own — the media lit up like the switchboard of a gossipy small town. Reporters investigated reporters. The Times newsroom erupted in finger pointing. Journalism professors raised themselves up on their suede elbow patches to tsk-tsk. Newspapers worriedly reviewed their policies. Collectively, we agonized: Will the public ever trust us again?

Don't sweat it! the public replied. We didn't trust you in the first place! That's the message, anyway, of a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released last week. It found that only 36% of those polled believe the media generally "get the facts straight." But that number had not plummeted since the Blair scandal; in February, it was 39%, and in December 2000 it was 32%. In fact, only one-third of the people surveyed had even followed the Blair story.

The numbers may help explain why so few people had complained after Blair made up stuff about them — they assumed that that is just what reporters do. And the figures hint at why journalists are more fascinated by perfidy among our own than civilians are. Villains like Blair and their cut-and-dried crimes — lies bad, truth good! — are easier to deal with than the systemic problems with journalism that people really care about.

Journalists are nerdily literal-minded folk. When we say, "Does the public trust us?", we mean, "Do they think we're accurate?" The public has a more sophisticated definition of trust: Do the media respect me? Do they know how people like me live? Do they put news principles over the bottom line? Are they elitists, poseurs, sell-outs? Journalists think trust equals accuracy. But it's about much more: passion, genuineness, integrity.

In March, Gallup asked Americans to rate coverage of the Iraq war; 79% said it was good or excellent. But 38% said it was often inaccurate. Which means a fair chunk of the audience thought the media did a good, but inaccurate, job. Maybe they liked the media's wartime flag waving, were happy to see the media focus on a serious issue or understood that facts are always hard to pin down in war. Either way, the message is that truth is about more than facts. If people hate the media, it's not because Blair invented a tobacco field by Private First Class Jessica Lynch's house.

Why, then? Take your pick. There are the perennial charges of bias, which grow louder the more bitterly split the electorate gets. But there's also the problem that many big-media journalists are now cautious, well-paid conformists distant from their audiences and more responsive to urban elites, powerful people and megacorporations — especially the ones they work for. Hence the bland news anchors who verge on self-parody; magazines so commercial they're practically catalogs; timid pack journalism (We love dotcoms too! I mean, we never believed in them either!); local newscasts shilling for their corporate parents ("Up next: the hottest Survivor finale parties! Plus, the rest of the news!"); saturation coverage of trials-of-the-minute and movies we know will be lousy but will have big opening weekends. Yes, people watch and buy all this stuff. That doesn't mean they respect it. They see a profession that acts excited about a lot — Laci Peterson, The Matrix Reloaded, political horse races — but cares about nothing.

So it's not surprising that we've seen the runaway success of Fox News, which cares with a vengeance. Fox too is a big corporate entity that commits plenty of the above sins. But love it or hate it, Fox News also shows a passion for its job. Its pugilism and its high-decibel hosts' badly masked rightward leanings are journalistically incorrect, but they're not marketing (well, not just marketing). If Fox's political convictions often override its journalistic ones, at least it has convictions. Whereas when MSNBC slapped the flag onscreen and CNN hired Connie Chung for a shot of Fox-y tabloidism, it looked like the insincere opportunism that it was. Ironically, CNN brands itself the "most trusted name in news," and it has a deeper news bench than Fox. But CNN isn't the most watched name in news, perhaps because its definition of trust — "trust us to get accurate scoops" — is not the public's only priority.

The same goes for all of us. We can root out every error, every plagiarist, every bias — but it won't do any good if we replace them with a gutless inoffensiveness. We've spent a month being worried that our readers and viewers hate us because they think we're liars. Relax, brethren; they don't. They hate us because they think we're phonies.