The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
The Assumption of Trust
July 2004

by Terry L. Heaton

Who's to blame that the news is often obsessed with pop culture at the expense of important (often foreign) matters?

A kafuffle of sorts arose over this question recently at one of those gatherings of journalism elites in California. It began when David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, blamed the public for failing to pay adequate attention to serious journalism by saying, "The public bears responsibility for what it watches, what it reads and what it ignores." Stanford Professor David M. Kennedy took him to task by comparing Remnick's quote with President Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" address, and added, "It's absolutely fatal to democratic theory to believe the public is incompetent. To whom else can we turn?" Kennedy said it was the media's job to make what's important more compelling.

This is a complex and important matter, for the real issue is not one of blame but one of trust. And on the mistaken assumption of trust rests all of contemporary journalism.

Let's begin with a question: Who or what gives anybody the authority to be a reporter?

Journalism schools only prepare people for our trade, and a degree isn't a license, so the authority doesn't come from education. It certainly doesn't rest with the government, for then journalism would be mired in the political process. The First Amendment protects us from a Federal Bureau of Journalism Licensing. The authority doesn't rest with business or industry, because then only industry moguls would call the shots (A lot of people think that this is the case, but thankfully, it's not.). The authority doesn't even rest with people who own printing presses or broadcast licenses or vast Internet holdings, although they may act as though it does. The truth is there is no conferrer of journalism licenses, because there is no authority to grant such — no person, no entity whatsoever to whom one can go to complain.

This is the crux of a very serious matter, because the true authority of any journalist in a democracy is a public trust, not the press card he or she might carry. This is badly misunderstood these days, and it's at the root of a whole lot of problems.

>From the journalism side of this trust is an assumption that the press represents the public and, therefore, speaks on its behalf. When the press investigates, it does so as a representative of the people. Mess with the press, and you're messing with the people. That is journalism's assumption of the public trust.

>From the public side of this trust is an assumption that the press has their best interests at core, and so consent and tolerance — rarely discussed forms of authority — are granted to those who investigate and report. As John Locke taught, however, one cannot tolerate unless one has the power not to tolerate, and this is what's happening today. The press has breached the trust as far as the public is concerned and now functions in its own best interests, and that has created two big problems. One, there's a void in the public information arena (more on this in a moment), and two, the press blindly assumes the trust is still in place, even though it functions as though its authority comes from someplace further up the hierarchy. This creates the illusion that the public trust is a given, that the press is actually doing the public a favor by shining a light on what it believes is truth — all in the name of journalism. That's why Mr. Remnick can blame his readers for their apparent illiteracy.

But journalism without the public trust isn't journalism at all; it's just a business.

When a reporter knocked at the door or called on the phone, it used to be that the weight behind their questions was that of a curious public, and it was considerable. Reporters want to believe that's still the case, but it just isn't. "Gotcha" has become a sad and self-serving game that the deluded press plays, but it's a power grab that the citizenry generally sees through. It's about marketing, personal and corporate. It's about manipulation for some form of gain. Who needs trust when you have clout?

On television, most people used to stay put when we told them to "stay tuned." The assumption was that there was something important ahead. Not anymore. We "tease" them, and well, guess what? They don't like being teased. And so they don't trust us anymore, but who needs trust when you think you have a captive audience or the marketing acumen to manipulate them hither and yon? Nowhere is the absence of the public trust in journalism more evident than in the hyperbole within television newscasts.

In TV news, we crossed the line between news and entertainment a long time ago, yet we wonder why the audience treats us like entertainers instead of journalists.

It used to be that we'd never consider showing a crime victim's body on the air, but now some version of the body shot is an integral part of every crime story. In truth, the only time you don't see this today is when there wasn't anybody there to videotape it. We also used to resist the exploitation of sobbing family members or friends, but that changed when the idea of touching viewers emotionally became more important than the story. Our audience used to trust that we wouldn't unnecessarily shock or distress them but no longer. After all, who needs trust when you've warned them?

We've convinced ourselves that such behavior is all right, because people "have a right to know," and we always run to press freedom whenever our business is challenged. The problem is that press freedom is inextricably tied to the public trust, and without it, such behavior is revealed as self-motivated and disingenuous. The biggest threat to freedom of the press is the press itself.

We're surprised when people object to Ted Koppel reading the names of war dead, so we write it off as politics. This stems from a belief that part of our role is to present things that people "need" to know, but again, this assumes that the public has entrusted us with the authority to do so.

They did once, but they don't anymore. We broke the promise upon which our relationship was based, and we deserve what we're getting. The question is — will we ever get it back? The answer is problematic, at best, because the real crisis revealed by the loss of public trust in the press is what it says about self-governance. Who wants to self-restrict when you can blame the audience, as Mr. Remnick has done?

In their recent book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing. By abdicating our responsibility to govern ourselves, we've also contributed to a self-governing crisis throughout the culture.

For all that we espouse the desire to run our own lives, the truth is we all need some form of government. Like Bob Dylan wrote, "You're gonna have to serve somebody." The choice we have in the U.S. is whether that governor is internal or external, and that poses perplexing and difficult questions in a culture that was built on the internal governor of religion but has evolved to the external governors of profit and the law.

When the United States was born over two centuries ago, its founders wrote a "Declaration of Independence" from British rule. It boldly stated that all men are created equal and that the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were God-given and therefore could not be transferred to another or taken away. In making this statement, they rejected the hierarchy of the throne of England. The government they created was designed so that THE PEOPLE would run things through their representatives, and power was split between three branches of government.

That's because the authority of such a government was to come from the "consent of the governed," you and me. This is impossible unless those to be governed externally already have a modicum of an internal governor. In a culture based on oath, allegiance and promise, licentiousness is inevitable without such integrity. Promises based on nothing are meaningless. An oath sworn on one's own self has little meaning, since it can be broken with impunity. A real or perceived punishment must accompany the oath before it carries any weight. Locke knew this, which is why he had such difficulty with atheists in a democracy.

All government is about power — the granting or restricting thereof — and self-government is no different. What is different is that self-government flows from a bottom-up paradigm, one that begins with self-governing at the most micro of levels. That means each individual must find a way to govern him or herself before it's possible to participate in cultural self-governance. This is a primary missing ingredient in our culture today, without which we're like soup base without water.

Lying under oath in a court of law is a crime, but that's the be-all-and-end-all of it today. People who do so take a calculated risk and weigh the possibility of going to jail if found guilty of perjury. However, the oath taken in a court of law when our courts were founded carried a much stiffer penalty — that of hellfire and damnation. That was the essence of oaths. You didn't take them lightly, because eternity was at stake. This is one example governing from within, and it's what our way of life is built upon.

So this matter of public trust and the media is much more significant than it at first seems, for the self-governance of one demands the ability to test the self-governance of others. And isn't that actually what's happening when the press — with the public trust — knocks at any institution's door? Isn't that what our "checks and balances" accomplish — to assure that the self-governance of others is equal to our own?

Taking the public trust for granted while functioning as though our authority comes from a higher power has created a massive disconnect between the people and the press. And the people — weary from decades of fighting this disconnect — have now taken matters into their own hands. With technology providing the means, a whole new genre of news reporting is springing up all around us to fill the information void.

Weblogs are increasingly representing the people, because they're written BY the people. The journalism within the blogosphere is breathtakingly self-governing and self-correcting, and the energy flowing between the postings, links and comments is a gale of fresh air. The discussion is passionate, intelligent and involving. The public trust here isn't conferred on some detached, authoritative entity. It's in-your-face and open to challenge from any and all.

However, one must be a part of this phenomenon — as Bill Gates calls it — in order to fully understand it. Otherwise, the tendency is to view this historic transformation through institutional eyes and try to assimilate the movement into the status quo. It just won't happen, because contrary to what Mr. Remnick (and many others, including the father of professional journalism, Walter Lippmann) thinks, the public is a lot smarter than they're given credit for being.

This is the essence of the Postmodern movement, which is documented in this series of essays. It is the Age of Participation, in part, because Pomos view the Modern age of logic, reason and hierarchical authority — along with its need for citizen passivity — as having failed. Pomos don't trust experts, especially those who claim such a status based on some institutional authority. They trust those closest to them who've actually experienced the subject in question.

This is the power of the New Media known as blogging, and it has profound ramifications for the future of journalism's public trust.

© Terry L. Heaton