Last week, Reuters published a pair of photos which they said reflected the declining popular opinion of the war in Iraq. The first photo showed a smiling Jessica Lynch, in dress uniform, shaking the hand of an admiring child while beaming adults looked on in the background; the second showed Lynndie England holding the end of a leash with an apparently naked Iraqi man at the other end.
In the accompanying story, journalism experts said the pictures are a measure of the change in public opinion.
"Between the time Lynch was rescued from an Iraqi hospital in April 2003 and England was revealed posing in pictures of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib this spring," says the story, "public opinion has traveled a parallel path from hopeful to skeptical over the American role in Iraq."
You might expect that opinion polls would rise and fall with good and bad news from the front. Less intuitive--and more disturbing--is that according to the experts, the relationship goes both ways.
What images the media choose to portray the story relies heavily on those polls, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of Washington's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
"Which image they select is usually influenced by their sense of public attitudes, so polls tend to have a very substantial impact on framing the way journalists think," Rosenstiel said.
An unflattering picture of a candidate may get no coverage if he is ahead but be widespread if he is losing, he said. Thus, he said, declining support for the war is reflected in what we see.
The same dynamic seems to be at work in the Paper of Record. For several years, the New York Times has parroted the Bush administration's pronouncements on everything from Homeland Security to yellowcake uranium. Now, as public dissatisfaction grows, the paper has suddenly rediscovered its proper role. The editors apologize for having been taken in, and promise to be more discriminating in running Bush League blather as straight news in the future. But as Megan Boler writes in the Toronto Star, "The N.Y. Times admission cannot help but smell like last-minute political jockeying to distance itself from an increasingly unpopular Bush administration." Again, we see supposedly hard news being shaped by public opinion.
Broadcast news, for its part, has long been more entertainment than information. The networks sensationalize in search of ratings, they reduce issues to sound bites, they cover every election as if it were a sporting event--and if anything, more blatantly and overtly than print media, they cater to the perceived tastes of their target audience.
In general (there are exceptions, but they're even worse), the media aim to tell us what they think we already believe. Forget about telling us the truth, or telling us what we need to know--they tell us what they think the masses want to hear. Or as the strip-joint proprietor says in John Prine's "Living In the Future," "Hell, we give 'em what they wanna see."
Excellence in journalism? This is hardly journalism at all. It's just plain pandering. The job of the news media is to inform us, not to amplify and reinforce whatever we already think.
If there's a silver lining, it's in the form of a lesson in how to work the media: to impact what they present as news, you simply have to impact what they perceive public opinion to be. This is a technique the right wing learned years ago, and they have been using it to their advantage ever since. By convincing the media that the population thinks they are biased toward the left, they've pulled the editorial slant far to the right.
It's time to fight back. Write your local paper. Write your local radio and TV stations. Write the networks. Let them know that you expect them to dig beneath the party lines and sound bites and easy answers, do some real research, and report the facts. When they fail to do so, call them on it. Let them know you won't stand for lazy journalism, recycled propaganda, and focus-group pandering. It's the only way to take back the media.