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Have Newspapers Simply Lost Touch With the Mainstream Public?

The depressing stats tell a tale that’s a bit more complex: Readers tolerate out-of-touch media less now because they we need them so much less

Earlier this week we looked at the way a flailing newspaper chain decided to cut back on editorial and opinion pages. The decision should not be a surprise in an age when so much opinion is available for free — and by no means is all of it foolish.

One familiar response has been to say, well, media are too “liberal” (or “leftist” or “progressive”) for the readers — and that’s why newspaper are losing them. It’s a factor but there is more to the story.

First, we are dealing with a fact: Pious disclaimers notwithstanding, as a group, media personnel are generally more likely to support progressive causes than average Americans. A variety of explanations is offered, including this charitable one from journalist Marvin Olasky a decade ago: Journalists hope to recapture the moral certainty of the civil rights era in the Sixties:

Hence we see people like Bob Schieffer and Tom Brokaw–who once upon a time would have actually tried to keep their biases reasonably in check–frame the issue over gun control as if we’re in Selma in 1965.”

Marvin Olasky, “Why are journalists liberal?” at World (February 6, 2013)

Of course, providing only one side of a complex story reduces potential readership and trust. But print media efforts to become more inclusive can end in disaster as Woke newsrooms rebel against it.

At one time, the bias did not make a great deal of difference because we read newspapers to meet a variety of needs —comparison shopping, local news and sports, cottages for rent… and all these needs are now met by the internet. At this point, the obvious difference between journalists’ views of a notable event and average readers’ views can become a more obvious irritant to the readers.

Here’s an example. Recently, a man was charged with attempting to murder U.S. Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, in connection with, among other things, a controversial expected ruling that would return abortion legislation to the states. Meanwhile, a group has been targeting the children of fellow justice Amy Coney Barrett for the same reason. A number of sources have noted that mainstream newspapers gave surprisingly little attention to these developments, considering their implications. One of those sources was comedian Bill Maher:

Maher’s point is easy to understand: Intimidation/assassination of judges is not an ordinary form of violence. If judges can be plugged by representatives of interest groups in order to forestall or get revenge for decisions not in the group’s perceived interests, a country quickly becomes ungovernable. In the film, A Man for All Seasons (1966) the embattled jurist Thomas More warns,

Gallup tells us that last year’s survey showed Americans’ trust in media to be the second lowest on record (the lowest was 2016): “In all, 7% of U.S. adults say they have ‘a great deal’ and 29% ‘a fair amount’ of trust and confidence in newspapers, television and radio news reporting — which, combined, is four points above the 32% record low in 2016, amid the divisive presidential election campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In addition, 29% of the public currently registers ‘not very much’ trust and 34% have ‘none at all.’” (October 7, 2021).

Searching for answers in an ongoing decline, new New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn thinks Times journalists need to “de-prioritize” Twitter. He is perhaps telling us all more than he realizes:

Part of that is an exhortation to spend less time sending tweets; but a bigger concern is that too many journalist have come to see the Twitter audience as a proxy for the public.

Increasingly, he fretted, some Times journalists “don’t even want to engage in certain kinds of stories because they anticipate the reaction that they’ll get from writing on, reporting on, a story that tends to be a lightning-rod type issue on Twitter.”

Jeremy Barr, “Joe Kahn is now editing the New York Times. Don’t expect a revolution.” at Washington Post (June 14, 2022)

Twitter is assuredly not a proxy for the public. The proportion of Twitterati who hope Barrett’s children get plugged is probably much greater than the proportion of the U.S. public that does — among whom, as a matter of fact, even progressive strongholds are beginning to recall district attorneys who are perceived to be soft on crime…

People in mainstream media who genuinely do not sense that Twitter is not representative are likely too out of touch to engage the public much. Their industry appears to be past the point of no return.

Note: The feature photo is by Bank Phrom on Unsplash.

You may also wish to read: Flailing news chain Gannett cuts back on opinion pages. Younger readers say they can’t tell the difference between news and opinion. Readers say they can get opinions anywhere online these days and op-ed pages have become dead space — among the least-read pages in the newspaper.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Have Newspapers Simply Lost Touch With the Mainstream Public?