Late at night on Nov. 4, 2008, there will be winner — or a loser — that wasn't on the ballot and that the press won't be talking about: the press itself.
All the problems of legitimacy, competence and trust that besiege American government also apply to the press. But there are two big differences.
First, if the new president is elected by a wide margin and his or her party also does well, there could easily be substantial increase in trust in government; the press has virtually no chance for swift, if temporary, redemption.
Second, the government is funded by mandatory payments by U.S. citizens, otherwise known as taxes. Even when the regime is unpopular and incompetent, the cash flow keeps flowing. The press is funded by earnings; if there aren't any, there won't be any press. As it is now, profits from journalism are scarce and growing scarcer.
If the 2008 election doesn't offer the news business a chance for salvation, it is still a time of opportunity, a chance to rise or fall in public esteem. It is unfortunate, but presidential elections are when public opinion about the press gets molded. And there will be more press, more punditry, more campaigning, more of everything in this longest-ever campaign than any in history. If we in the news business aren't careful, our customers at some point will be shouting, "Gag me." (I know, I know, a lot of you already are; if you're firmly committed to the "liberal bias" or "right-wing tool" camp, you're welcome to go straight down to the comments section and vent.)
In May 1972, when Richard Nixon was running for re-election, Gallup conducted a large "State of the Nation" poll. It showed that 63 percent of the public either had a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust and confidence in the executive branch of government. The news "mass media" scored 68 percent.
In April, 1974, four months before Nixon's resignation, Gallup's new "State of the Nation" poll showed trust and confidence in the executive branch had crashed down to 40 percent. Trust in the media had actually gone up a point.
Trust in government in this country has never really recovered from Watergate.
In September 2005 Gallup repeated its questions from the 70s, just about verbatim. The executive branch scored 52 points, up somewhat from Watergate. But trust in the news media had plummeted to 50 percent. And there are much worse poll numbers out there — trust me, I'm a journalist.
The fall of the press in public opinion was gradual, and almost all major institutions in American public life have suffered, too. For journalism, the single biggest factor was almost certainly the advent of cable television and the attendant 24/7 news cycle, complete with argutainment-style programming. New financial pressures hurt the quality of local and network broadcast news, radio and newspapers. And we have hurt ourselves in many ways.
Right now, the audience reach of every kind of news media is shrinking. The only exceptions are the Internet and the ethnic press.
The 2008 campaign presents special problems, not the least of which is the brutal length of this campaign. How will voters not be sick of it — and us — by next fall?
This will be the first election where many, if not most voters have high-speed Internet access at home and work. The number of Web sites and blogs devoted to politics has increased beyond counting. Some are news, though what's news and what's not is now in the eyes of the beholder to some degree. Some sites are ideological, some are partisan, some are e-communities, some are funny and some are fakes. The sheer output of information can be overwhelming. It probably will be — it already is for me.
For the very active political consumer with extra time, there will be more raw information — video of speeches and press conferences, financial data, voting records, ads, background papers — available for scrutiny than ever before, thanks to the Internet. That is a good thing, an opportunity. My guess is that if we in the press can do a good job with that, we'll have had a good election.
This campaign may be an opportunity for journalism to earn back some lost respect. Even if it does, the "traditional" press is bound to shrink in the near future. Changing that slide means reversing a pattern where the public values and respects less and less. The press is not the government; it can shrink and shrink a lot.
So, like America's political parties, the American press has a lot at stake in 2008.
If you prefer e-mail to public comments, complaints or arguments, send them along to Against the Grain. We may occasionally publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
By Dick Meyer