Monday, April 03, 2006
PBS' "NOW" Brancaccio says journalism failings are "our problem"
Monday, April 3, 2006
Public TV host Brancaccio says people just don't trust the media
But blogs, journalism have potential for 'great synergy'
By CHRIS McGANN
P-I CAPITOL CORRESPONDENT
As host and senior editor of the public television program "NOW," David
Brancaccio spends a lot of time researching and thinking about the issues
that shape U.S. policy and how those issues shape the everyday lives of
Since he took over as host of the show in 2005, when Bill Moyers retired,
he's provided viewers unique perspectives with hard-hitting reports on
government secrecy, the future of America's public schools, the plight of
America's workers, the influence of talk radio on public policy, the
conservative movement's political convention strategy, and the future of
the environment, from mercury in our lakes to natural gas drilling in the
The general thrust: "We've got a problem with our media and it's not just
the media's problem."
"There's a lot of inward looking and hand wringing about the state of
journalism in America," Brancaccio said. "I'm trying to make the case that
this is everybody's problem because we have a democracy here."
The problem breaks down into two major components, he said.
"The level at which the public trusts journalists continues to fall," he
said. "The good news is the public still seems to think that it's a decent
idea for the news media to keep a close eye on public officials and
government -- that's nice, but they don't trust us. They think we are
Why does the trust break down?
"There's an interesting theory," he said. "When you ask journalists why
they do what they do, I say, we do this in the public interest. Trying to
make the community a better place. It's part of the role of the news media
to keep an eye on civic issues and gather the facts so that people can
figure out what to do with those facts.
"And yet the public absolutely doesn't believe that. They think that we
are either, A) delusional when we say we are working in the public
interest or, B) lying."
For a number of reasons, Brancaccio said, people don't think journalists
are being honest about their motives.
"So you have this problem of trust," he said, "and then it bumps up
against this interesting little paradox in my line of work: Public
broadcasting ... is the most trusted brand of journalism."
Brancaccio's explanation: "I'm not serving shareholders. I'm lucky enough
to just be able to do my thing with my non-profit little production
company. It's easier for the public broadcasters to make the case that
they are in this for the public good, that there is an educational mission
What about blogging? Does that undermine the trust?
Brancaccio said blogging comes up in every interview he does and many
people say the way of the world is online new media, he said.
He cited a Project for Excellence analysis of news content on a single
"Only 5 percent of what was in the blogs were what you or I might consider
journalism," he said.
Defined as: "Did they do any interviews? Did they consult any documentary
sources? Were they witness to events? The answer: no, 95 percent of the
time," he said.
"The idea of citizen voices expressing themselves through blogs is
fabulous," he said. "There's people reading them and there's people with
"I read blogs quite a bit because they are other smart people with more
time on their hands than me (and they) have aggregated stories that I need
to see. I'm just worried that underlying the blogs -- there needs to be
some news coverage and we have a challenge -- who is doing the news
coverage? Well, I'm doing some, you're doing some, but it's endangered.
"It's all great stuff but it is not a replacement for professional
reporting ... just people kind of commenting from the side is not all you
need. You need somebody inside these big institutions talking to people or
getting sources, he said."
What about the way blogs could undermine traditional gatekeepers and
"I think it is pretty good even if it undermines journalism some. When we
screw up, the bloggers are right there to hold our feet to the fire," he
said. "But there has to be a basis of actual fact, fact does matter. It's
not all just spin. But if blogs are built upon a foundation of facts that
journalism can provide, then that's a great synergy."
What are the basic ingredients for doing stories that restore trust in
"I love doing interviews with people who are not the elites, but on the
other hand the caveat that my colleagues have for me is: They're not that
interested in simply an interview of simply someone who is the next guy on
the bar stool -- there has to be a basis for what they are saying," he
"They have to have some kind of reason that we are talking to them
specifically, some experience or something special to give.
"Sometimes in blogs, it is like the next guy on the bar stool --
everybody's got some opinion.
"As your paper discusses its role in the blogosphere, there is something
called journalism that's a real thing and it's not just snobby journalists
upset that regular citizens can also do this, but when they do it they
must be journalists.
"They have to have seen something, done some rigorous interviewing or
consulted documentary sources. It can't just be pilfering and respinning.
The concern is that there is supposed to be an economic model that
supports the rigorous side of this. We are struggling with it, too."
P-I reporter Chris McGann can be reached at 360-943-3990 or
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