Today I read a poll from Rasmussen which stated that while 56% of Americans polled consider the news media at least somewhat trustworthy and get most of their news from television (including 32% who get most of their news from cable news television), only 6% of Americans view the media as very trustworthy . As a member of the media myself, as difficult as that is to believe, I find that wide disconnect to be emblematic of a larger problem. Journalists in general often consider themselves to be members of the “fourth estate,” with the power of presenting truth and shining a light on dark places. Often those who are most passionate about journalism view their work with an almost messianic fervor.
Unfortunately, public confidence in the truth claims of journalism does not appear very great. Let us not forget, after all, that barely more than single digit percentages of people have confidence in their elected leaders (if polls can be believed), which makes journalists viewed with a similar level of trust and confidence to members of Congress . (I doubt, given what political news I am able to read from other countries, that the politicians of other countries are viewed with any greater degree of confidence.) What could possibly account for the wide gap between how people at large see the media and how the media sees itself? Understanding the origins of this wide gap might provide some insight on how to solve it.
For one, anyone involved in the media (or anyone who makes any kind of truth claims) comes from a particular worldview. Over the past twenty years or so (if not longer), the worldview of the news media has come under increasing scrutiny, as it has become increasingly evident that journalists have a definite bias. Though postmodernism has a great many flaws, its one great virtue (which accounts for its massive cultural influence) is that it has exposed the man behind the curtain and revealed the fact that everyone lives life with filters and blinders and biases, which has led to a massive collapse of trust and confidence in those who make firm and strident truth claims, especially in an absence of honest admission of bias. Those who are the most forthright about their bias and the most open about it tend to suffer less because they are freed from the pressures of even attempting to balance out the scales, by being free to say what they believe and think, or what they believe and think will be popular with their intended target audience.
The proliferation of viewpoints and worldviews, and the shattering of the sort of broad consensus that was often assumed to exist because of a limitation on those worldviews that were openly known and recognized, has proven to be both a threat and an opportunity for the fourth estate. The anarchical world of ideas has made it possible for just about anyone (myself included!) to demonstrate a modicum of intellectual capacity and a credibility among certain people, namely those who are open to what I write (and what I say for those who know me in person). However, this openness has also made it impossible for anyone to gain exclusive control or even domination with specific truth claims. There are two ways to defame any attempt to find truth–one is to seek cultural domination and control with a false worldview that punishes those who seek truth with exile or death or imprisonment, and the other is to deny any sort of ultimate truth and merely present an all-you-can-eat buffet of ideas and speculations and biases, each of which is only a partial picture of the truth (partial in multiple ways, no less). Sadly, all too many of us have become skilled in debunking error, but less skilled at sifting through bias to find a kernel of truth within different competiting perspectives that allow one to build a coherent picture of truth from a multiplicity of partial and biased accounts.
Ideally, journalists and other related professions (like historians or theologians) would be able to help develop coherent narratives to help others. Unfortunately, those professions have all greatly suffered by having their methodological biases brought to light without having been seen as being honest and forthcoming about those biases. Debunking is an easy task these days, but it is far too easy to cast doubt on the credibility of others than it is to do the hard work of building up a good reputation for being an honest and decent and fair-minded truthteller, with a definite perspective that one is honest and open about. Those who are hostile to the proclamation of the truth in these times may not even feel it necessary to promote their own ideas if they can spend their time attacking the views of others. So we spend our days with a great deal of combativity, whether in defending our own worldview and perspective or in showing the biases and mistaken assumptions in the worldview of others. We have met the fourth estate, and it is us.