The Instinctive Distrust of Big Media

Anyone in journalism who wants to regain that trust would do well to read American Dispatches and internalize the lessons that Robert Parry offers, writes Nat Parry.

Press briefing at the State Department, Feb. 11. (Ron Przysucha/State Department)

By Nat Parry
Special to Consortium News

Americans’ trust in the media has reached all time lows, with just 11 percent expressing confidence in television news and 16 percent expressing confidence in newspapers. These are the startling findings of Gallup’s latest survey of American attitudes about the media, which since 1972 has tracked the ups and downs of public confidence in the news.

An interactive graph at Gallup’s website provides a clear picture of the erosion of public confidence in the so-called Fourth Estate over the past five decades. Peaking in 1979 at 51 percent, the public trust in journalism has been on a steady downward trajectory ever since, with confidence plummeting at key turning points in history. Trust dropped to 35 percent in 1981, the beginning of the Reagan-Bush era and then plunged again to 31 percent in 1987, the year after the Iran-Contra Affair broke.

Since then, public confidence has continued to wane, year after year, with 46 percent of Americans now saying that have “very little” or no trust in newspapers and 53 percent expressing the same distrust of television news. With 37 percent expressing “some” confidence in newspapers and 35 percent having some degree of trust in TV news, the amount of people saying they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust is relatively minuscule.

To make sense of Gallup’s numbers, it is useful to juxtapose them against the media’s coverage of major stories over the decades. When public trust in journalism peaked, at the end of the 1970s, it should be noted that the media had earned a reputation over the previous several years as plucky, independent and adversarial.

Not only had The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which demonstrated that the Johnson administration had systematically lied to the public and Congress about Vietnam, followed by The Washington Post’s expose of the criminal activity of the Nixon White House in the Watergate scandal, but newspapers also regularly published the secrets of the C.I.A. and F.B.I. These included disclosures of the F.B.I.’s COINTELPRO (short for “counter-intelligence program”), which involved the infiltration of American anti-war and civil rights organizations, and a secret assassination program run by the C.I.A. called Family Jewels.

[Related: JOHN KIRIAKOU: J Edgar Hoover’s Evil Brainchild and MLK & Fred Hampton Versus J Edgar Hoover]

New Paradigm 

In contrast, by the 1980s, a new paradigm had emerged that was captured well by the title of journalist Mark Hertsgaard’s 1988 book, On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, which chronicled the relationship between the media and Ronald Reagan. This on-bended-knee obsequiousness had been characterized by a shirking of responsibility on the part of the news media to tell the full story of Reagan’s crimes and misdeeds, including the defining scandal of his presidency, the Iran-Contra Affair.

Ray Bonner in a C-Span program on investigative journalism, Jan. 9, 1993. (C-Span)

A seminal moment in this process was the purging of New York Times journalist Raymond Bonner after he reported on the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army’s massacre of men, women and children at a remote village called El Mozote at Christmastime 1981.

The Reagan administration convinced Bonner’s editors that he had been duped by Communist disinformation, while a White House-funded outfit called Accuracy in Media amplified the smears against Bonner and his colleague Alma Guillermoprieto, who were made out to be liars. Under intense pressure and abandoned by his editors, Bonner’s career at The New York Times soon ended.

Although Bonner’s reporting would ultimately be vindicated by a United Nations excavation of the massacre site a decade later, which uncovered hundreds of skeletons — including those of many small children — the failure of The New York Times to back up its reporter who had established the truth in real time enabled the Reagan administration to continue its support for genocidal death squads in Central America.

This failure was partly the result of a systematic effort by the White House, C.I.A. and State Department to contain disclosures and control the media narrative through a strategy called “perception management.”

By applying pressure on editors and TV producers, combined with disseminating misleading information, government officials were able to marginalize honest journalists and present a false picture to the American people about key issues, particularly the dirty wars being fought in their name in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

How This Played Out

The full story of how this played out is told in the newly published book American Dispatches: A Robert Parry Reader. Tracing the development of my father Robert Parry’s career in journalism, spanning the Vietnam War era to Russiagate, this collection of his articles sheds light on how the Washington press corps lost its way and how he came to the conclusion that building independent media was essential to save the republic.

As my dad explained in a 1993 speech launching his first book, Fooling America, the press had devolved considerably since the time he arrived in Washington in 1977. It had gone, he said, from “the Watergate press corps,” with all its faults, to “the Reagan-Bush press corps,” which was characterized by cowardice and dishonesty.

In the ‘70s, he explained, the press “was there as the watchdog,” but the press that had emerged by the end of the 1980s was a shell of its former self.

With many of the honest reporters having been purged from the big media outlets, my dad laid the blame squarely with the editors and the news executives who did the purging.

“It wasn’t the White House or the State Department or the embassy in El Salvador that drove Ray Bonner out of The New York Times,” Parry recalled, “it was The New York Times executives who did it.”

Having had his own difficulties with editors and bureau chiefs at The Associated Press and Newsweek who he felt weren’t interested in reporting honestly on the realities of the Reagan-Bush era, by the mid-1990s my dad was also growing increasingly frustrated by what he saw as the timidity and short-sightedness of existing “alternative media.”

When he discovered a treasure trove of documents that put the history of the 1980s in a new and more troubling light, he found that few media outlets — even those on the left — were interested in giving him a platform to report on them. Many of these documents related to the “October Surprise” controversy from Election 1980, namely the allegations that Reagan’s campaign team had colluded with the revolutionary Iranian government to hold 52 American hostages in Tehran until after incumbent President Jimmy Carter had been defeated and Reagan inaugurated.

Although considerable questions remained about this story, most U.S. media outlets had moved on, satisfied that it had been effectively debunked by a congressional investigation. My dad founded Consortium News in 1995, along with a hard-copy newsletter and a bi-monthly sister publication called I.F. Magazine, to enable journalism that could examine tough, controversial stories such as these.

Counter Narratives

Journalist Robert Parry.

Over the next couple decades, Consortium News would go on to provide honest reporting on a slew of stories that the mainstream media would routinely ignore or get wrong.

My dad’s reporting offered counter-narratives, for example, on the media’s obsession with President Bill Clinton’s sex life, its misreporting on candidate Al Gore’s supposed lies and exaggerations in Campaign 2000 and George W. Bush’s disputed “victory” in which Bush took the presidency despite losing the popular vote and almost certainly losing the key state of Florida had all legally cast ballots been counted.

Other important stories he covered over the years included how the U.S. government looked the other way as drug traffickers imported cocaine into the United States, the politicization of intelligence and abuses of power by the C.I.A., how the U.S. supported an unconstitutional regime change in Ukraine in 2014 and the use of official lies to sell endless military interventions to the American people.

But despite taking pride in the small role he played in developing the new medium of the internet “to allow the old principles of journalism to have a new home,” he acknowledged that Consortium News was “just a tiny pebble in the ocean,” and the undeniable trend was towards a growing clampdown on information.

As my dad would explain in his final article, written on New Year’s Eve in 2017, information was becoming “weaponized” in America, with journalism being used “as just another front in no-holds-barred political warfare.” But the weaponization of information was no longer limited to one political faction or the other. Democrats and liberals, he regretted, had adapted “to the successful techniques pioneered mostly by Republicans and by well-heeled conservatives.”

Even those who came of age during the Cold War and had learned at an early age about the deceptions the government had used to sell the Vietnam War to the American people had come to insist in the Trump era that Americans must “accept whatever the U.S. intelligence community feeds us, even if we’re told to accept the assertions on faith,” my dad wrote.

His goal of building up an infrastructure for independent journalism was to create a home for honest narratives that would counter the mass media’s misrepresentation of history that convinced large segments of the population to buy into a “synthetic reality,” as he called it.

What the steadily eroding trust in the mainstream media reminds us is that even though Americans may be generally misinformed and confused about key topics, there is an instinctive distrust that people feel towards the institutions that are deceiving them.

The latest numbers from Gallup should serve as a wake-up call to the media that it might want to reconsider its approach to journalism. Media executives could look at the high trust that the public placed in newspapers of the 1970s as a clue for what it should be doing today.

Anyone who wants to regain that trust would do well to read American Dispatches and internalize the lessons in journalism that Robert Parry offers.

Nat Parry is a co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush and is the author of the forthcoming How Christmas Became Christmas: The Pagan and Christian Origins of the Beloved Holiday, being published by McFarland Books. 

25 comments for “The Instinctive Distrust of Big Media

  1. Kev
    August 22, 2022 at 12:33

    Don’t forget 9-11.
    Any memories to share with the younger generation?

  2. Vesa
    August 22, 2022 at 01:44

    One of most telling example of msm downward spiral is the Guardian. It is just a few years ago when they published the Edward Snowden story. And see it today spilling absurd lies about Ukraine, this is insane.

  3. Alexandru
    August 21, 2022 at 12:30

    Your dad was a great journalist and we must honor him. However, Consortium News is not “just a tiny pebble in the ocean”. As long as there are journalists like your father and outlets like Consortium News the truth is still alive. And that is crucial for our future. As long as the truth IS SAID we still have a hope! And that’s very important!

  4. Henry Smith
    August 21, 2022 at 03:18

    Isn’t it the case that the distrust in the MSM can be closely correlated with the decline in physical newspapers and the rise of the Internet and digital media ?
    Digital media gives the man in the street a truly international voice, which is difficult for the ‘powers that be’ to suppress – even though they control most social media outlets.
    Outlets like CN and others enable the building of alternative narratives to balance the ‘official news’ that just wasn’t available a decade ago. The priority now is to prevent the state from closing down the alternative voices.

  5. mgr
    August 20, 2022 at 20:05

    Good instincts. That distrust is both logical and rational and should be applauded. Under current conditions, trust would be quite the opposite. How about foolish and irrational. Look at what corporate media has brought us from Iraq and WMD to the current conflict in Ukraine and the “immaculate conception” view of history and events; no cause, no effect, everything just happens, wherever convenient.

    Life can be so magical in the matrix, which can be a disturbingly accurate description for a public plugged into a manipulated media/news environment where all perceptions are fed by narrative. The more you listen, the less you know. Dictators of old would rejoice. And it’s being carried out by big business, for-profit, corporate media. I don’t imagine they are being dragged into this seeing as how they are doing exactly what they did for the war in Iraq only more so. The world is still on fire from that, but corporate media is much, much richer as a result so I guess there is that…

    • Archie1954
      August 22, 2022 at 16:02

      Is n”instictive” the right word to describe the distrust. I rather think such distrust was learned through long exposure to lies and censorship of the whole story!

  6. Rudy Haugeneder
    August 20, 2022 at 19:59

    Most journalists I know are downright cowards when it comes to telling the truth — locally, nationally, and internationally — because they might be fired, as often happens. Unfortunately, even those with guts usually end up working as PR flacks for all levels of government because the pay is good, the benefits are even better, and they can retire with comfortable pensions and benefits when they are still fairly young.

  7. Sam F
    August 20, 2022 at 18:57

    Independent thought, evidence collection, careful reasoning, doubting of mass media narratives, and courage to defend the truth are indeed rare, even among educated people. This is largely due the absence of diverse public debate establishing standards of evidence and reasoning, and presenting the facts determined by prior debate, which is in turn due our unregulated economy allowing businesses to control mass media.

    Where oligarchy-owned mass media control public debate, courageous and independent thinkers willing and able to defend unpopular viewpoints as needed are certainly fewer than 10 percent, and those willing to defend truth where this is socially, physically, or financially risky are one percent or less.

    New ways of thinking are the key, and new institutions forming a new public mind, to permit public debate, the celebration of public spirit and human values lost in our culture of greed, lying, and bullying.

    I am working to set up the Congress Of Policy Debate (CongressOfPolicyDebate dotcom) constituted to protect all points of view, and to conduct moderated text-only debate among university experts of several disciplines, of the status and possibilities of each world region, and the policy options. Debate summaries commented by all sides are to be made available for public study, mini-quizzes, and comment. The introductory book can be downloaded there.

    The debates will require a higher standard of argument in foreign and domestic policy on both right and left, and would have much reduced the group-think that led to our endless mad wars since WWII. Extreme and naïve politicians would be easier to expose, and media commentators would have a starting point and a standard for media investigation and analysis.

    While most politicians will ignore and attack careful analysis, and “the common man avoids the truth [because] it is dangerous, no good can come of it, and it doesn’t pay” (Mencken), the CPD can bring the knowledge of society into public debate, educate the electorate, discourage propaganda, and expose the wrongs of society and the corruption of government that desperately need reform.

    • IJScambling
      August 22, 2022 at 11:18

      I look forward to the emergence of CPD.

  8. Adam Gorelick
    August 20, 2022 at 17:55

    Not to diminish Robert Parry’s important contributions to journalism, but it only underscores the degeneration of mainstream reporting, and the public’s growing distrust thereof, that someone of Parry’s integrity could once have written for the AP and Newsweek – the epitome of mainstream “news.” So many heretofore good, if not great, news outlets have become subsumed by corporate/ Washington agendas – PBS, NPR, The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian…. Robert Parry’s journalistic legacy and Consortium News may be “a tiny pebble in the ocean”, but they, and a handful of other excellent outlets, are the flotsam needed to stay afloat as the rest of journalism sinks to the bottom.

  9. Poor Richard
    August 20, 2022 at 14:24

    Tell the Truth = gain Trust
    Tell lies = lose Trust

    Its rather simple.

    Of course, one lie loses a lot more Trust than is gained by telling the Truth. This of course is why news organizations who valued their own credibility tried to stay closer to the Truth. That was in the old days. These days, it is quite clear that the bean-counters in control do not value their own credibility.

  10. Floriot
    August 20, 2022 at 14:02

    L’étoile polaire n’est pas celle qui brille le plus. Merci pour ce que vous faites !

  11. Dr. Hujjathullah M.H.B. Sahib
    August 20, 2022 at 13:56

    It is brave and responsible souls like your distinguished father who made the world look up to Americam media for objective, ground-breaking news coverage that hew close to the truth, Nat, in the past. Those days of reporters with integrity are long gone, todays’ Mainstream media and their various “info products” are little more than misinformational brothels pimped up by intellectual hookers passing themselves of as highly reliable editors and competent media executives. This is not a shitty situation unique to just the USA alone but is more or less the same in many other nations too. In the future all authoritative coverage of events and issues should not just be left to be covered by members of the official PRESS but should also be covered by members of the alternate STRESS. So, while the PRESS presses the official stance from the Press Box the STRESS too should be free to stress their alternative pitch from their own Stress Box; something akin to the oral performance of the government and opposition within the parlimentary divide !

  12. michael888
    August 20, 2022 at 12:34

    The State/ CIA now LEGALLY control domestic propaganda since the “modernization” (abolition) of the anti-domestic propaganda law, the Smith Mundt Act, under Obama. Any important Official Narrative is echoed from all the State Media, without circumspection, and with no dissension/ correction allowed.

    While pointing out that most Americans do not trust State Media, we all know that most people in Soviet States also did not trust their Police State managed news. That doesn’t change the fact that the Official Narratives are the only ones allowed. CN, substack and other alt media will soon lose their funding mechanisms, their subscribers will be harassed, and such alternate viewpoints will be very publicly squashed.

  13. Newton Finn
    August 20, 2022 at 11:36

    What son could me more proud of his father? Or what father more proud of his son? Long live Consortium News, and bless all who keep it moving onward and upward.

  14. Dfnslblty
    August 20, 2022 at 10:43

    Thankyou, Nate.

    Economic poverty of most of the usa and around the globe prohibits thoughtful reading of “the news”; Citizen are afraid to speak against what their eyes tell them are immoral and illegal actions taken by murderous corporations defended by murderous governments.

    CN and similar are presenting complete stories of corporate greed/illegality. This reportage may someday break through the Public’s survivalist timidity in facing the challenges of fascism.

    “Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion, will be a touch-and-go relay race right up until the final moment…..Humanity is in the “final exam” as to whether or not it qualifies for continuance within Universe.”
    – R. Buckminster Fuller

    • Dr. Hujjathullah M.H.B. Sahib
      August 22, 2022 at 00:48

      You have captured the principal challenges and dilemma of our age so crisply.

    • Dienne
      August 22, 2022 at 13:13

      I dunno, I have to argue your point that poverty is what prevents thoughtful reading of the news. Most of the poor people I know understand that the news is bovine excrement because it doesn’t line up with their lived reality at all. It’s the educated, managerial/professional, liberals that can’t (don’t want to) read news thoughtfully because they like what they hear. The economy is doing swell and we all just got a “pay raise” because gas prices went down (a little, nowhere near what they were)? Sounds right to them, time for brunch! Russian was the sole, evil aggressor who invaded ukraine for no reason whatsoever? Sure, if you say so. Bad, evil Putin! He’s responsible for everything bad in this world!

  15. August 20, 2022 at 10:16

    I have an uncomfortable sense that this article veers away, albeit subtly, from Bob Parry’s objectivity, and in a direction the Deep State might smile upon, one favoring the Deep State’s own Democratic Party by focusing on GOP misconduct and subtly downplaying the predicates for today’s major problems for which the Clintons, Obamas and Bidens and their political and media allies are responsible. A drift I regret as it is how most of the major media criticized in the article began their shift from news to propaganda. It’s mainly an uncomfortable sense, intangible, but one which, in the past, has proven prophetic.

    • Dr. Hujjatullah M.H.B. Sahib
      August 22, 2022 at 00:28

      Great, thats eye-opening too !

  16. Tony
    August 20, 2022 at 06:49

    A very good article.

    However, this statement is really the official narrative on Watergate:

    “The Washington Post’s expose of the criminal activity of the Nixon White House in the Watergate scandal…”

    The idea that the CIA would try to assassinate President Nixon is something that I suspected was true but I never thought it could be proved. For me, that changed with the discovery of Bill O’Reilly’s 1977 interview with Frank Sturgis that is available on YouTube. I strongly recommend that people see it.

    Given the failure of the assassination attempts in early 1972, it would be only natural for the CIA to look for an alternative way of removing Nixon. And that explains the deliberately botched Watergate burglary just a few months later.

    People need to be very careful when they praise the Washington Post for investigating Watergate just as we should be very careful about praising Liz Cheney for her attacks on Trump. Things are not always what they seem.

    • Julian Lobato
      August 21, 2022 at 05:25

      When I was a little kid during Watergate I wondered why the plumbers broke into the Democratic campaign office in the first place.

      It was Consortium News who showed me that it was Nixon’s secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese to hold out for a better deal than what LBJ was offering thus extending the Vietnam war for more thousands of civilians killed.

      He was so paranoid the Democrats knew about this treason that he ordered his boys to find the memo exposing his disgrace. It’s America’s disgrace that nobody knows this.

  17. Piotr Berman
    August 19, 2022 at 23:40

    The sad aspect is that while the trust is waning, the manipulations work. What is vilified has abysmal poll rating. What is blotted out by the “mainstream” media remains unknown. The concept of needing the truth is vanishing, instead we have “narratives”, of which “our narrative” should be accepted, trustworthy or not

    Consortium News and other independent outlets do what they can, but a movement that could combine and amplify their voices is missing. Perhaps I am too pessimistic, I stop following the news with any regularity. I would be most happy with some polemic pointing to bright lights on the American scene.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      August 20, 2022 at 15:13

      I suggesst you read the World Socialist Web Site, along with Consortium News, Grayzone, and other independent reporters like Ben Norton on Multipolarista, Richard Medhurst, Asa Winstanley, Caitlin Johnstone, Chris Hedges, Scott Ritter, and others. This is far from a comprehensive list. Independent journalists are out there and they are having an effect. This is one reason why trust in the mainstream media has gone down. Citizens are looking for truth and are finding it all over the Internet. The first thing that people must do is get rid of their televisions. The television is the most dangerous brainwashing machine in the world. I got rid of mine ten years ago. I recommend you do the same. Your pessimism cannot be an excuse for inaction.

    • WillD
      August 20, 2022 at 23:59

      Isn’t it a case of people ‘wanting’ to believe, even when they know it probably isn’t true and they don’t have an alternative. It’s the ‘I’ll settle for 2nd best, or 3rd best – and eventually, I’ll settle for anything that sounds even remotely possible’.

      I think there is a sort of mental cost-benefit analysis going in in the background, where people weigh up the costs and advantages of doing more investigation to get closer to the truth/facts, against the likely benefits of knowing them, and the likely disadvantages of not knowing them.

      I do it myself sometimes, where I look at an article or video that I think is likely to get me close to the truth/facts and wonder whether it’s worth my while to take the time to dive in and find out. Do I have the mental & emotional energy and capacity for more effort? How much more can I / am I willing to absorb right now? And what immediate benefit will it give me?

      When we are bombarded with news and media from so many sources, it becomes harder to be selective about which ones to spend time on, as well as which ones to trust.

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