Media Criticism

Trust the Media? Yes—And No

The biggest problem with media coverage is not with the stories that get reported but the ones that don't.


The establishment media usually do a solid job telling the big stories. They are scrupulous about getting the details right. If CNN reports that the EPA will force automakers to raise average fuel economy by 20 miles per gallon, you can take that to the bank. If the Boston Globe quotes the city's mayor, you can trust the quotation's accuracy. If you read an obituary in the local paper, you can bet the rent that the name is spelled right. You're never going to see a reputable news organization report the fake-news story that the pope just endorsed Donald Trump.

Investigative reporting deserves a more jaundiced eye. Sometimes it is stellar—e.g., Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Frank Green's pieces on Keith Allen Harward, which led to the innocent man's release after decades in prison. Or the Washington Post's "Top Secret America" series exploring the world of domestic surveillance. But sometimes it is so faulty it has to be retracted. There are many examples, from a 1992 NBC Dateline segment on GM trucks to Rolling Stone's 2014 story on a rape at UVA.

The biggest problem with media coverage, though, is not with the stories that get reported but the ones that don't.

It's no secret that most news organizations tend to lean left. Hence, they instinctively view some institutions (such as corporations) as the bad guys, and other institutions (such as government regulatory agencies) as the good guys. So you see a lot of reporting like The New York Times' "Toxic Waters" series or the Associated Press' "Pharmwater" series—full of dark warnings about the perils of too little government regulation. Do you ever see an investigative series suggesting there might be too much regulation of something—or even acknowledging the theoretical possibility?

I once asked the AP's Washington bureau chief just that. The best she could come up with was an exposé on how the New York Police Department had been spying on Muslims. Huh? That series concerned civil liberties, not regulation.

Even in the realm of civil liberties, you sometimes see a marked difference in tone. Mainstream news organizations often refer to the "gun lobby," but almost never to the "abortion lobby," despite their many similarities. That's because the word "lobby" carries sinister overtones. Most of the media consider abortion rights good and gun rights bad.

This doesn't make reporters and editors malevolent. They're merely fallible—just like the rest of us.

This column originally appeared as part of a Commentary section symposium on media in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.