Change you can believe in.
Yes we can.
A couple of mavericks.
Those are the lines we'll probably remember most from the presidential campaign. But it's another line that may turn out to be far more important, and more ominous: "In the tank." It refers, of course, to the charge that the American media was "in the tank" for Barack Obama, and did everything it could, on its news pages and in its broadcasts, to elect him. Frankly, it's not just a charge any longer. The notion is widely accepted. Even Deborah Howell, ombudsman for The Washington Post, concedes her newspaper's role:
"The Post provided a lot of good campaign coverage, but readers have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama. My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that they are right on both counts."
And Jennifer Harper, in The Washington Times, reported a Pew Research survey that found that 70 percent of voters felt the media wanted Mr. Obama to win, while just 9 percent said the press favored Mr. McCain. Among Republicans, the figure was 90 percent, but even 62 percent of Democrats agreed with the idea that "most journalists are pulling for Obama."
Lester Markel, the late Sunday editor of The New York Times, used to say that no one complains about slanted news. They complain, he said, about news slanted against their position. If it's slanted in favor of their views, it becomes objective, unbiased and brilliant. But Markel may have overstated it. This year, at least, even Democrats conceded that the press was in the tank for their candidate.
And in the last few days, Chris Matthews of MSNBC announced that he would help Mr. Obama to succeed as president, not exactly the "adversarial relationship" with the government that the press normally boasts of.
There has, of course, always been slanted journalism. "Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers" is an admonition taught by teachers and parents. But a number of observers believe that the bias we've seen in this election is the worst since 1964, when Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater was widely portrayed as a right-wing nut, a warmonger, and even a man with ties to fascism. It was Johnson, of course, who later plunged the United States deeply into Vietnam.
The kind of bias we've experienced in 2008 had its origin, in fact, in the 1960s, when journalism was overrun by college graduates, many trained on liberal campuses. They invented something called "the new journalism," which went well beyond the reporting of the basic story. Journalism was to be a kind of literature. The reporter was to interpret, to feel, to seek some larger truth beyond the reporting of facts. A slightly later generation of young journalists, inspired by the work of Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from office, decided that news reporting wasn't enough for them. They were determined to "make a difference." Traditionally, in journalism, the difference had been made on the editorial page, and not in the news columns. That distinction began to slip, and slip, and slip, until the major media developed into what we have today.
And what we have today isn't only enraging, it's dangerous. The liberties of the press are enshrined in the First Amendment because the Founders understood the importance of information in a democracy. The only thing the press has to sell is its credibility. If it loses that, it loses its reason for being. Then the rumor mills and the conspiracy theorists can become substitutes. In a crisis, who would the public believe? Victor Davis Hanson, the conservative historian, puts it this way:
"In the 3rd book of his history, Thucydides has some insightful thoughts about destroying institutions in times of zealotry—and then regretting their absence when there is a need for refuge for them. The mainstream press should have learned that lesson, once they blew up their credibility in the past election by morphing into the Team Obama press agency."
Hanson wonders what will happen when President Obama runs into serious trouble:
"And as public opinion falls, what will MSNBC, the New York Times, the editors of Newsweek, a Chris Matthews or the anchors at the major networks say? Not much - since they will have one of two non-choices: (1) either they will begin scrambling to offer supposed disinterested criticism, which will be met with the public's, 'Why should we begin believing you now?' or 'Why didn't you tell this before?' or (2), they can continue as state-sanctioned megaphones of the Obama administration in the manner that they did during the campaign. They will lose either way and remain without credibility."
Indeed they will.
But what can be done? Can journalism be saved? Can public confidence be restored? It can be, but it may take generational change to begin to do the job. Editors today will most likely hire people just like themselves. And remember, they don't think they did anything wrong in this last campaign.
There is, however, one way to accelerate reform in journalism, so that we don't have to wait a generation - and that is through the market. Like any business, a newspaper or TV station must be responsive to its customers, or go under. If offended readers and viewers make it clear that they will stop reading and viewing, and take their business elsewhere, at least some news operations will get the message, and start offering a better, more neutral product. Newspapers, in particular, are in decline. Publishers seem to believe that they're victims of the internet. That's part of the story, of course. But the other part is that large numbers of readers no longer feel they need newspapers. Given the slanted, in-the-tank journalism they've seen, who can blame them?
Fortunately, the internet is in fact providing some alternatives sources. But it is still the mainstream media to which citizens look for most of their information, especially in times of trouble. Journalism failed us this year. The public, as the Pew survey shows, is aware of it.
The public will not be taken for granted. Its patience will not last forever.