The World Hates a Newspaperman

It’s the time of the year when journalists wonder why no one loves them. Which isn’t to say the question never comes up in July, but feelings run especially high in December when the Gallup Poll announces the results of its annual “honesty and ethics” survey of jobs and professions. As usual, we’re way down there.

Journalists can deal with trailing behind nurses. And if the public wants to believe that grade school teachers are more decent than reporters, so be it. But bankers and “local office holders”? Come on!

“OK. What’s going on here?” asked someone on a University of Missouri J-school Web site upon reading that Gallup had ranked newspaper reporters 16th among 21 job categories, behind even TV reporters. “Once again newspaper reporters are among the least respected professions in terms of ethics. What are we projecting to the public that causes this perception?”

Someone promptly responded, we’re projecting Jayson Blair–and all the little Blairs. But the disrespect we suffer isn’t really about them. Every year Gallup asks about journalists, and never, ever do we score among the highly esteemed. In 2000, the last time Gallup asked “Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards” of newspaper reporters specifically, just 16 percent of the people responding said “very high” or “high.” This year it was up to 21 percent, so at least we’ve made it out of the teens.

Meanwhile, the score for TV reporters rose from 21 percent to 23 percent. Maybe that’s because a lot more people watch TV than read the papers, and TV reporters are earnest folk who look the viewer square in the eye and know how to purse their lips when they’re troubled and grin mischievously when they’re not.

At the top of the chart, 79 percent of people rated nurses high or very high and 73 percent did the same for grade school teachers. Dropping down a ways, 36 percent said the same about bankers, 26 percent about local pols. Little more than half the population thinks society’s twin pillars of rectitude have any better than journeyman scruples: the clergy got a 56 percent score, judges a 53. Even so, they did a lot better than reporters.

Let’s reflect on the competition. Most people actually deal with nurses and teachers and discover they listen sympathetically and keep confidences. Most people haven’t talked to a reporter and know they probably never will unless catastrophe strikes, and then reporters will descend for the sole purpose of extracting painful information and putting it in the paper.

Then there are the pharmacists (72 percent)–the perennial front-runners until Gallup added nurses to its poll a few years ago. Pharmacists stand on their feet all day and count pills. And what of military officers (72 percent), doctors (67 percent), and cops (60 percent)? We can’t afford not to idealize them, so we do. Auto mechanics (26 percent) may rank ahead of reporters for a similar reason–everyone needs to trust his own. So they too enjoy that we’re-in-denial advantage.

Lawyers (18 percent) trail journalists because it’s painless to think of them as rascals. When we need one ourselves honesty isn’t high on the list of the qualities we look for: we want someone who’ll get the job done. As for the members of Congress (20 percent), journalists can take comfort from their example. Nobody trusts them as a species, but everybody loves his own–only once in a blue moon is an incumbent congressman defeated for reelection unless his constituency is redistricted out from under him. The theory known as civic journalism was devised to advance the idea that the press should think of readers less as consumers than as constituents.

Reporters are a bundle of contradictions. We sigh that nothing we do matters anyway, since today’s news lines tomorrow’s birdcage. At the same time we demand extra compensation from publishers on the grounds that our work will live forever in their online archives. We bristle if anyone questions our integrity yet make cunning and rudeness proud parts of our repertoire. We want our papers to take unpopular stands yet ask to be admired when they do. We’re messengers bearing bad tidings but expect to be put on a pedestal, not killed.

Everything we do makes someone mad. A perfect example of the reason reporters will never score high in popularity polls was provided last week by Edward Lee Pitts of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the embedded reporter in Kuwait behind the famous question that Specialist Thomas Wilson asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during his Q & A with the troops. Pitts even saw to it that the sergeant handling the mike would call on Wilson. Talk about manipulation.

Why is the Pentagon sending troops into battle with inadequate armor? Wilson asked, as Pitts wanted him to. “You go to war with the army you have,” Rumsfeld answered, and the sad thing was that Pitts couldn’t ask the obvious follow-up: “We went to war on your timetable, buster, so why didn’t you hold off long enough to outfit us first?”

Like any other reporter who outsmarts the system, Pitts was despised for it. “I think it’s unconscionable that this reporter set up a soldier the way he did,” reserve marine general Drew Davis told the Tribune (as if the question was nothing Wilson or the other GIs cheering it actually wanted asked). Conservative media critic L. Brent Bozell thundered, “It was sneaky, it was slimy, and he should be fired for it.” Rush Limbaugh called it “cheap theatrics.” You just know that Limbaugh would never speak so harshly of the nurses who plumped his pillow during rehab.

Pollsters themselves are a kind of reporter, and sure enough the public’s also suspicious of them. On its Web site Gallup acknowledges “a healthy dose” of skepticism and goes on to say that “survey researchers have actually conducted public opinion polls to find out how much confidence Americans have in polls–and have discovered an interesting problem. People generally believe the results of polls, but they do not believe in the scientific principles on which polls are based. In a recent Gallup ‘poll on polls,’ respondents said that polls generally do a good job of forecasting elections and are accurate when measuring public opinion on other issues. Yet when asked about the scientific sampling foundation on which all polls are based, Americans were skeptical. Most said that a survey of 1,500-2,000 respondents–a larger than average sample size for national polls–cannot represent the views of all Americans.”

I called Jeff Jones, managing editor of the Gallup Poll, and asked how poll takers fared when it came to “honesty and ethics.” The question was often asked in the 90s, most recently in 1998, he said, and poll takers consistently scored around 25. You were down with the dregs, I said.

“Not necessarily the dregs,” Jones said. “The dregs are telemarketers, advertising practitioners, and car salesmen.” (The latter two were inquired about this year, and they trailed the field at 10 percent and 9 percent respectively.)

OK, not with the dregs. But with journalists.

“In general,” Jones said, “journalists used to be rated slightly higher [than they are now], back in the mid-to-late 70s.” That was in the wake of Water-gate, when young cityside reporters saved the republic and became wildly famous, prompting do-gooders to stream into the business. If newspaper reporters weren’t venerated then, they never will be.

Eyes on the Prize

Tribune public editor Don Wycliff gave readers a heads-up in his December 9 column. They would notice “an unusual number of series” in the days ahead, he wrote, because it’s now or never: anything published after New Year’s won’t qualify for next spring’s Pulitzer Prizes.

Page one of the same paper showed the Tribune going for gold. Back in October it had carried “Forensics Under the Microscope,” a Pulitzer-inspired series by Maurice Possley, Steve Mills, and Flynn McRoberts on the “questionable science, flawed analysis and shoddy lab practices that sometimes undermine the quest for justice.” There have been occasional follow-ups since, and December 9 brought the capper. Possley and Mills came about as close as a newspaper can to accusing a state (Texas) of executing an innocent man.

Cameron Todd Willingham died by lethal injection last February after a jury convicted him of setting the fire in which his three daughters died. The Tribune said Willingham’s prosecution was “based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances,” and in his specific case, by consultants who’d reviewed the forensic evidence at the Tribune’s request. Other evidence against Willingham, the Tribune told us, included the testimony of neighbors who thought he should have tried harder to save his kids and of that all-too-familiar deus ex machina in difficult prosecutions, the jailhouse snitch.

Page one of last Sunday’s Tribune carried two more terrific stories: an intimately observed “special report” by Paul Salopek and photographer Heather Stone on the arranged marriage of a seven-year-old girl in Ethiopia and a story by Aamer Madhani on U.S. army reservists who’d been locked up and dishonorably discharged for rustling the equipment they needed to do their job–trucking fuel north from Kuwait in 2003 to supply the invading forces.

The Tribune often stakes its prestige on Sunday stories that are easier to honor than read. But the accounts by Salopek and Madhani–like the one by Possley and Mills–were riveting and infuriating.

De Zutter Steps Down at CMW

Hank De Zutter is retiring this month as vice president of the Community Media Workshop. De Zutter, who believes local activism is the taproot of democracy, got the idea for CMW in the late 80s, when he was running workshops that taught neighborhood groups funded by the MacArthur Foundation how to get their message across. Backed by the foundation, he and his friend Thom Clark created CMW in 1989 as a permanent bridge from the neighborhood groups to the media. It’s still going strong. CMW’s annual directory of media contacts, Getting on the Air & Into Print, now more than 200 pages long, has become an indispensable tool for community organizers and journalists.

An education writer at the Chicago Daily News in the late 60s, De Zutter was one of a handful of young reporters whose response to the dailies’ timid coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention was to found the Chicago Journalism Review and call them to account. CJR was the inspiration for similar journals soon launched in cities across the country.

Since 1970 he’s taught journalism at Chicago colleges, primarily at Malcolm X but also at Truman and Columbia. In the late 70s and early 80s he wrote a column on urban affairs for the Reader, and in 1995 his Reader cover story introduced Barack Obama. He’s also written a TV documentary on playground basketball and a children’s book on how the sounds common animals make are rendered in different cultures and languages. If the public knew anything about De Zutter’s career, my guess is more than 21 percent would highly approve of it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.