Despite reminding viewers every commercial break that it remains “the most trusted name is news,” CNN’s credibility is steadily falling, and its proud slogan has lost much significance in the era of politically polarizing media sources. Boasting only a 32-percent credibility rating according to the Pew Research Center, CNN has lost almost 10 percentage points since 1998. But even that’s high compared to the “most trusted” printed news source, The Wall Street Journal, which now only has 24 percent of readers believing “all or most of what it says,” down from 41 percent in 2000.
In recent months, the trust issue has taken a wild turn for the worst, owing to media coverage of the government’s monitoring of phone and international banking records. The issue is no longer just about the unreliability of the media; now the American public is concerned with and fearful of the media’s capabilities as well. These sentiments have escalated so much in the past couple of weeks, newspaper editors have been forced to respond to reader’s criticisms of their editorial decisions. Most notably, Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of the New York Times – blamed for leaking the bank monitoring-program in a June 23 news story – defended the Times’s decision in an open letter stating, “Nobody should think that we made this decision casually, with any animus toward the current Administration, or without fully weighing the issues.”
But what goes above and beyond the concerns the American public has toward the media is the anger of many top officials in Washington. After the June 23 Times story, President Bush held a press conference to declare that the coverage of the monitoring program “does great harm to the United States of America.” Some Republican congressmen are even attempting to get the attorney general to prosecute the Times, saying that the story put Americans’ lives at risk.
In an attempt to somehow distinguish themselves from the Times and avoid similar condemnation in Washington, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page has taken to attacking the Times as well. In a June 30 editorial (Fit and Unfit to Print) the Journal’s edit page said that it no longer trusts the Times to properly balance national security concerns and the public’s right to know. Of course, it’s no secret that the News section of the Journal rarely agrees with its edit page’s critiques, and the result was no different this time, with the Journal’s political editor declaring that he was shocked by the editorial.
But what the Journal’s edit page and others who threaten the Times have forgotten is that there is a small section in the Constitution that gives the Times the right to publish the story. It’s called freedom of the press, you know, wedged in the First Amendment between freedoms of speech and assembly.
The Times’s decision to cover national security operations is protected under the Constitution and, as long as they legally obtained the information and presented it in a truthful manner, there are no grounds for prosecution. The Journal’s edit page is only hurting itself by saying that the media should obey the government by denying its right to publish whatever it deems important for its readers. For the government to have any control over what the media publishes is simply not permissible no matter what the ramifications. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
With fewer and fewer Americans considering media sources credible, publishing information that may harm the public and potentially foil the anti-terrorism strategies of the government will only further cause people to lose faith in the media. In order to increase readers’ trust, the Times, as well as the Journal, CNN, Fox News and every other media outlet need to use their freedom with more integrity. This means having the ability to ascertain when they have indeed crossed the line from providing solid news coverage to providing superfluous, dangerous and perhaps unethical coverage that serves no purpose to the American public.
Especially in this time of heightened security concerns, when it comes to potentially endangering human lives, media sources must administer careful discretion and be fully capable of defending their publishing decisions.
Kennelly can be reached at email@example.com.