Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Hyman's Commentary on Pew Stinks

You might remember that a few months ago, Mark Hyman selectively quoted from a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism to suggest that local news (Sinclair Broadcast Group’s bread and butter) was the most trusted form of news, while types of media were viewed critically (if at all).

latest is a follow up of sorts to this earlier commentary, and like most sequels, it’s thinner and duller than the original, but it’s worth a comment or two.

Citing a poll by the
Pew Research Center, Hyman correctly notes that faith in all forms of news media has declined recently. However, Hyman selectively cites numbers that don’t tell the whole story. For example, Hyman talks about the “steady decline” of favorability ratings for the media, but neglects to mention that daily newspapers, local TV news, cable news, and network TV news all have favorability ratings between 75 and 80 percent. Yes, they’ve declined since 2001, but only by a few points, and the overwhelming majority of Americans still give all forms of news media a favorable rating.

As a side note, Hyman points out that major national newspapers have taken the biggest hit in favorability (74% to 61% in the last four years), but neglects to mention that the second biggest hit came for cable news, which suffered a nine point drop (88% to 79%) in the same period. The interesting thing about this is that the 88% rating in 2001 only applied to MSNBC and CNN. In 2005, the folks at Pew added Fox News to the mix, and the result was a precipitous dip in favorability. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Hyman also plays with the numbers when he says that “a growing number [of Americans] question the patriotism and fairness of the media.” First off, it’s unclear to me why it’s important for media to be “patriotic.” Most Americans seem to agree. According to the Pew study itself, more than two-thirds of Americans says news coverage of the “war on terror” should be neutral, with only 24% saying it would be better if news outlets took a pro-American stance. Given the fact that Sinclair is the company that forced their on-air talent to vow support for George W. Bush after September 11, it’s not surprising that Hyman might complain that the media aren’t being biased enough.

Moreover, Hyman’s statement only applies if one starts counting the trend in popular opinion since the fall of 2001. In fact, the Pew study charts attitudes about the media’s patriotism and fairness going back to February, 1999. At that time, more people felt the press were too critical of America (42%) and hurt democracy (38%) than do now (40% and 33% respectively). Why the negative attitudes six and a half years ago? That was when the supposedly liberal press was compulsively reporting on every aspect of the Clinton impeachment trial.

And despite Hyman’s recurring assertions that the media is biased against the Bush administration, the Pew study shows that far more people believe press criticism of political leaders is a positive way of keeping them on the straight and narrow (60%) than think that criticism keeps leaders from doing their job (28%). The gap between these two numbers is as large as it’s been in about 15 years. The narrowest it has been in that period (i.e., when the number of people thinking press criticism of leaders was hurtful most closely approached the number who thought it was helpful) again came during the Lewinsky affair (55% help, 39% hurt).

Hyman also claims the Pew study shows how respected local news is. It’s true that local news compares favorably in general with other forms of news media (although it was ranked below network TV news when it came to “believability”). The interesting thing about this in the context of Hyman’s commentary, however, is why people like local news. When asked, people said the things they liked best about local TV news were that it focused on their local area, it kept them connected to their community, and it provides up-to-date information.

If you know anything about Sinclair Broadcasting, you know that their business model is based on undermining each of these advantages. Sinclair stations often rely almost solely on canned news feeds from the Baltimore headquarters, not truly local news. Even at those stations that still have a skeleton reporting staff, little time is allowed to adequately cover stories of community interest, and we certainly know that no editorial time is allowed for local voices to be heard. And given that “The Point” editorials are taped up to a week in advance, there’s not much to be said for the timeliness of Hyman’s commentaries. The “hometown factor” cited as the most important draw for local news by the Pew study is exactly what Sinclair is eradicating from the airwaves.

None of this is meant as a defense of the current news media. There’s plenty to be upset about in terms of the quality of print, broadcast, and cable journalism. What’s problematic is not that Hyman is criticizing the media, but that he’s doing so in a way that distorts the facts to feather his own nest. Continuing to perpetuate the myth of liberal bias in the corporate media and gushing about how respected local news is doesn’t serve the public’s interest; it serves Hyman’s.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 1.40


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