In 1976 the Gallup Poll reported that 72% of Americans trusted the press. It hasn’t come close to that level since, and its approval ratings now stand at 32%, and 14% among Republicans, the lowest ever. It’s worth noting that its highest ratings came in the wake of tough reporting on Vietnam and Watergate, which made it reviled – and also feared – by powerful people. They accused it of bias, tried to discredit its stories and attacked the motivations of its reporters and editors. Perhaps no one hated the press more than Richard Nixon, who believed that “the elite, East Coast liberals of the media” only told one side of the story. He often appealed directly to the public, and after his speech on Vietnam brought a flood of support from the “silent majority,” he gloated, “The press corps is dying.” Yet the public continued to trust the press and admire its work, and young people flocked to news careers.
Obviously, things have changed – most importantly, I would argue, the plummeting advertising revenues that once enabled the press to fund investigative reporting and withstand attacks on its credibility. Its ability to operate as a public trust depended on its ability to prosper as a private enterprise. That is now in doubt.
But one thing hasn’t changed: the attacks from those who would discredit it, often the powerful and those with something to hide. And it’s worth remembering that the press was trusted most, not when it tried to be “balanced,” but when it got the story right.