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News industry must seize opportunity restore trust

Public trust in the media has cratered in recent years, damaging America’s ability to address the nation’s serious problems. Cynical news consumers no longer believe that the traditional media work as the public’s surrogates to provide measured and fair news coverage. Citizens now often resort to getting news from echo chambers, or — worse yet — stop monitoring the news at all, becoming news bystanders.

It is hard to fault sensible Americans for being disgruntled with the news media. They have seen with their own eyes that the news industry has largely redefined its role away from watchdogging the establishment on behalf of citizens. Instead, journalism has itself become part of the establishment, pushing predetermined agendas that fit pet narratives and causes. This assures journalists access to elite circles where groupthink and ideological conformity reign.

The incoming Biden administration provides the news industry an opportunity to revamp itself — and in the process reestablish a bit of public trust. Biden can be the timely president for such a redefinition of the media’s role and function. He’s not Barack Obama and he is not Donald Trump.

The press covered Obama with a fawning reverence, even though the Obama administration surveilled journalists, bottled up Freedom of Information requests, and aggressively prosecuted leakers to the press. Obama’s treatment by the press was so cozy that he once confidently bragged (albeit jokingly) to a gathering of reporters, “I know you all voted for me.” Obama was a new kind of politician and charismatic. The media’s crush on him continues to this day.

Trump was also a new kind of politician, but the wrong kind in the eyes of the press. He was a rich guy who took on the establishment, which included the media. Trump raged against the press in his 2016 campaign, his anti-media brickbats perhaps even helped him to victory. His supporters agreed that the establishment media no longer worked for them. Trump bashed the media as “enemies of the people” and disseminators of “fake news.”

Biden, obviously, doesn’t have Obama’s celebrity schtick or Trump’s attacking style. Thus, it could be reasoned that the press has no particular reason to create a Biden lovefest or systematically operate a Biden resistance. His administration provides an opportunity to report presidential news with a straight face, restore reportorial balance, and repair damaged media credibility.

Early indications, however, suggest the news industry is unwilling to look in the mirror, listen to news consumers, and do the soul-searching that must happen to put professional journalism back on the rails. 

It was one thing when the media did no scrutiny of Biden during the campaign. The press treated candidate Biden like a grandpa, failing to dig deep on policies, letting his handlers put near-daily lids on press access, and treating the vacuous campaign as though it were normal. One reporter meekly allowed himself to be stifled by Jill Biden when he dared to ask about Joe’s propensity for gaffes. The media could justify its mushy campaign coverage because Trump was still in the political arena, and resistance reporting against Trump was still “correct” thinking in media corporate towers.

With Biden now on the verge of becoming president, however, this should be the time for the press to cover his decisions with a sense of duty to accuracy and public service. Instead, reporters continue cheerleading for old Joe, providing a protective cocoon. The Biden pressers are staged pseudo-events with limited, hand-picked reporters being used as theatrical props. Any reporter anointed to ask a question of Biden should be embarrassed to be deemed so unthreatening.

Most media outlets have reported Biden’s initial cabinet announcements with utter exuberance. One network correspondent praised the cabinet picks as “not political,” which, of course, is quite impossible given that these people will be assuming political positions. Another prominent journo compared Biden’s appointees to the Avenger superheroes. Middle school cheerleaders don’t have this kind of unfettered glee.

The free press was established to hold the powerful accountable, not to run interference for the powerful against the citizens. Shilling for politicians to manage the public is what happens at state-run media in authoritarian regimes. A polarized nation needs the press to return to its more traditional role — working for the public instead of working the public. A Gallup/Knight Foundation study earlier this year found 84 percent of Americans hold the media partly or even mostly responsible for political divisions in the nation.

A journalism industry less focused on activism and more intent to provide the information flow needed for democracy could go a long way towards healing a divided nation.

The change in administrations provides the opportunity for getting journalism back on track, if editors and producers have the gumption and courage to do it.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.

Tags Barack Obama biden administration confidence Donald Trump Joe Biden Media bias National news media US news media

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)

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