Press zen master Jay Rosen recently took to posing a particularly subtle koan: Why did confidence in the press go down 1975-2005 as the level of education among journalists went up? Most of the people who responded answered with my general feeling that as the press became more professional (and corporate), it lost touch with its roots, values and audience. I think that's still the most likely scenario.
Of course, life teaches that most-likely-scenarios often aren't likely at all, so I went looking for an alternate explanation and came up with this one: What if the problem is that that technological and cultural change in America occurred at a logarithmic pace during that 30-year period, while progress in the press took place at a linear rate?
If you entertain this alternate perspective, then you presume that the theory of the press expanded only a little over three decades. Also, you must provisionally assume that measures of "trust" in the press could include responses from people who are likely commenting on the institution's relative adequacy. Which is interesting because a person's critique of the press is generally correlated to his or her political perspective: Conservatives tend to ding the media for being biased against conservatism, while liberals tend to criticize the media in terms of its quality.
So here's why this this tickles my brain: The left-wing bias critique predates Jay's 1975 time frame. John Birchers, Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley had been making that argument for years by then. Edith Efron's The News Twisters was a best-seller in 1971. Certainly the idea became more mainstream over time, but here's the deal: What if these media-trust surveys have had somewhat less to do with measuring political bias and somewhat more to do with measuring an increasingly sophisticated populace?
As newspaper editor John Robinson put it, "The level of education of citizens went up, too. Media choices increased. Traditional press let them down." I think he's probably right about that.
I don't have any math to back up this pace-of-change argument, of course, and it's really just a metaphor in search of discussion. But the powerful thing about reading Ray Kurzweil's basic idea is that it gives you a radically different scale for contemplating change. And the more I think about Jay's question, the more I think that this alternate view addresses not only our relationship to the press but to other institutions as well.
What if the most sortable personality trait in today's society turns out to be a person's attitude toward novelty? People who welcome it, or who are at least curious about new stuff, enjoy all sorts of advantages. People who fear, resent or live in ideological opposition to newness, however, must feel increasingly besieged. What if change-positive people are just better adapted to modern life?
So here's an alternate way of looking at the political and cultural shifts in America this decade: What if the benefits of a positive attitude toward novelty just keep winning over more converts? Not because people suddenly gain a better understanding of those changes (even "experts" are perpetually perplexed), but because they see that change-positive people tend to have better jobs, better toys and better prospects than people who are change-negative.
Christopher Anderson argues that the "notion of technological progress as logarithmic is the conceit of the technological class," which might or might not be true (although I suspect he's being overly cynical), but even that critique stops short of addressing the pace of cultural change, which is linked to technological change but not married to it. I would contend that the cultural shift required to move from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to Obama v. McCain in 2008 is far more surprising than anything produced by the semiconductor industry during the same period.
To be clear, I don't think this alternate view explains everything about press history between 1975-2005. And I'm generally suspicious of reductionist logic, particularly when it plays in the soft-science sandboxes of sociology, political science and communications. But you can mark me down for this one: In general, I think we tend to underestimate the significance of the pace of change and its effect on powerful institutions.