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Bill Straub: Where should the public invest its faith? Trust has always been the American way

The late Jimmy Breslin, my hero, said it succinctly: “You’re supposed to be despised.”

Breslin was, of course, referring to newspaper reporters, that constant target of critics who complain that they are either paying inadequate attention to a critical subject or they’re paying too much attention to a trivial matter.

Regardless, it’s true that reporters are always poking their collective noses into situations that many people feel would be better left alone. That naturally creates hard feelings that frequently lead to animosity, in some instances for an extended period. And the friends and followers of the subject feeling the animosity pick up on the hard feelings and follow suit.

Fine. Have at it. No one enters the news business to win a popularity contest. If they do, they’re doomed to deep disappointment. And don’t expect any sympathy from the institution itself — most of the time your editors are angrier at you than the public at large.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

Given that, the next phrase here might come as something of a puzzler – there has never been, until recently perhaps, a better job than being a news reporter. The great secret, permit me to unveil it here, is it’s almost too much fun. As the great columnist, the late Mary McGrory, (a personal acquaintance, I’m proud to say, I used to help carry her bags during political campaigns) once wrote, “I should confess, although I probably shouldn’t, that I have always felt a little sorry for people who didn’t work for newspapers.”

I say all this to assure you I’m not eliciting sympathy for newspaper reporters – quite the opposite, in fact. The news business has taken in misfits whose meager talents might otherwise qualify them for begging dimes on the street corner and given them a front-row seat to history. As Twain noted, he traveled to San Francisco jobless before becoming a newspaper reporter, adding ruefully, “I hated to do it but I couldn’t find honest employment.”

So if you’re expecting a please-dear-reader-be nicer-to-us, forget it and go find an edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. This is no plea for sympathy.

It is, however, an expression of curiosity. Newspapers are in trouble like almost never before, certainly since the advent of television news. Lay-offs are pandemic. Papers are going down for the count, readership is declining. A lot of the problems can be traced back to the Lords of the Press, who failed utterly to look into the future and prepare for the technological innovations that would change both the industry and the world.

So, again, sympathy would be misplaced were it not for the potential dire consequences. If an incompetent government follows naturally on the heels of an uninformed public, things in this already imperiled nation are destined to get worse.

But there’s another facet that requires strict examination. In addition to all of its other problems, the public, which as previously noted has historically maintained a degree of enmity toward the press, no longer trusts it, seemingly placing its faith to a large degree in an apricot-haired conman with no scruples and a desire to do nothing but enrich himself.

How did we arrive at this point? Cutting to the chase, critics will point to a liberal bias in the media that colors the reportage and generates the feeling that readers are being taken for a ride. The right argues the press is promoting the “deep state” while the left insists reporters are carrying out the dictates of their corporate masters. I can’t count how often I’ve heard the plaint that if we could only go back to the old days of Walter Cronkite, Uncle Walter, the very font of objectivity, who offered the news without bias.

In truth, there’s probably less partiality in news coverage these days than at any other time in history. Newspapers for much of the nation’s history were controlled by political parties that offered a distinct point of view. There followed another era where press barons, like Col. Robert R. McCormick, who ran the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News, left little doubt in their news columns where they stood politically.

The idea of straight news arrived during an era of consolidation where the number of newspapers in a town contracted to the point where oftentimes there was only one left. That continues pretty much to this day to the point that most have become fairly mind-numbing — Gannettized to assure that no one is offended by anything they might read.

And the straight-shooting Walter Cronkite, one of Murrow’s boys? Until 1968 he went along with the fight against communism in Vietnam. Then came the Tet offensive and a trip to Vietnam, resulting in Uncle Walter declaring “it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate” and he urged a negotiated settlement. That led President Lyndon Johnson to declare privately, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

So much for objective reporting.

Regardless, trust in the press has dissipated, to a large degree because the President of the United States, one Donald J. Trump, has characterized it as “an enemy of the people” that engages in “fake news.”

A significant portion has sided with Trump in this debate even though he has been shown to utter more than 18,000 false or misleading claims since assuming office a bit more than three years ago. He has publicly ridiculed a physically disabled reporter, joked about accosting women, and rendered any number of comments that can be construed as racist. He has all but called a television talk-show host a murderer despite there being no evidence and has bullied just about everyone who has gotten in his way into submission.

Yet millions of Americans continue to invest their faith in him despite the overwhelming and uncontradicted evidence that he is taking them for a ride, lying in their collective faces. The truly stunning thing is people realize Trump is boldfacedly lying to them, yet he continues to attract their faith while the press is left with their animus.

There’s something happening here and what it is ain’t exactly clear. There was, indeed, a time in this country when a blatant lie from a president was condemned. Now it is de rigueur, even embraced in some quarters.

And who’s responsible for this? The press of course, even though it is just reporting the words of the president of the United States and points out when he strays from the path of righteousness. Critics on the left insist news organizations should simply quit reporting on Trump’s disreputable remarks, apparently failing to realize that would just provide his acolytes with an opportunity to lay further claims of liberal bias.

At any rate, the press can’t win if the public insists on investing in a known liar and rogue. Maybe newspaper folks aren’t the only ones that need to look in the mirror.

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