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Press Gets Blame for Public Cynicism

Trust in public figures falls; some say journalists are too negative

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TRUE or false?: The American press has become so cynical that it is damaging the country's political system.

True, says Thomas Patterson, a political science professor at Syracuse University in New York. ''I think [press cynicism] has contributed significantly to an erosion of public trust in government,'' he says.

False, says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. ''It's a great exaggeration and oversimplification,'' he says. ''Americans think what they do because of their own experience, not because of the media.''

The argument about whether the news media, print and broadcast, is undermining American institutions is not new. But a new round of the debate has broken out among journalists and those who closely monitor their work.

In December, reporter Adam Gopnik complained in The New Yorker magazine that ''A media that in its upper, more self-conscious reaches ... once dealt in quiet signals now sounds loud and acts mean.''

Paul Starobin, a National Journal reporter, also pointed to cynicism in the March issue of the Columbia Journalism Review: ''Press cynicism is clearly a real problem -- certainly a problem in Washington.''

And these views were boosted last week with the release of a survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. In the poll, journalists agreed that the press is too cynical. But the big surprise was that members of the public surveyed were even more cynical about public figures than the press was.

Since the development of modern American journalism in the mid-19th century, journalists have always prided themselves on having a ''healthy skepticism'' of the statements and actions of the people they were covering.

But the degree of this skepticism varied widely. In the first six decades of this century, the national press had a fairly close relationship with government officials, right up to the president.

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