Sulzberger is right (and wrong)

Cal Thomas, syndicated columnist

I never thought I would write this, but the publisher of The New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, is right. Sulzberger wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in response to President Trump’s claim that his newspaper committed “treason” by publishing a story about U.S. efforts to compromise Russia’s power grid should Moscow again try to meddle in U.S. elections. The Times says it consulted National Security officials who raised no objections to its publication.

It is one thing for the president to criticize sloppy, inaccurate and biased reporting by the media, including The New York Times. It is quite another to use such an incendiary word as “treason,” whose definition does not fit what the president sees as a crime: “the offense of acting to overthrow one’s government or to harm or kill its sovereign; a violation of allegiance to one’s sovereign or to one’s state; the betrayal of a trust or confidence; breach of faith; treachery.”

Before becoming a columnist, I was a reporter for local TV stations and one network. In the early ’70s, during a pro-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, I was called a communist by one of the demonstrators, simply because I had an NBC News logo on my microphone.

Hostility toward the press for failing to report, or ignoring, what many conservatives believe to be true (but isn’t always) has been around for some time. It has grown worse during the Trump administration.

It might help lower the temperature if what is collectively known as “the media” engaged in serious introspection. Why is public distrust of journalists so high?

Columbia Journalism Review reports on results of a new Knight Foundation and Gallup poll: “A majority of those who were surveyed said they had lost trust in the media in recent years, and more than 30 percent of those who identified themselves as being on the conservative end of the spectrum said they had not only lost faith in the media, but they ‘expect that change to be permanent.’ According to a separate Gallup poll from earlier this year that tracked trust in major institutions, newspapers and television news were among the lowest, exceeded only by Congress.”

This is dangerous, not only for journalism, which is seeing the decline of newspapers and an increase in staff layoffs, but also because a vibrant press is crucial to a strong nation, as the Founders believed.

The response to this and similar surveys over decades has been a collective shrug. There is no self-examination by the media and no change. Campaigns for “diversity” are about hiring more women and minorities, not ideological balance. Consumers of media — especially religious and conservative people — view the press as hostile to their core values.

Journalism is a business. Think of it this way. If you owned a gas station and were losing customers because gas prices were too high, the lighting was poor so that people felt unsafe at night and the restrooms were dirty, would you allow these conditions to persist? Would you even if a competitor opened a station across the street with lower prices, cleaner restrooms and better lighting? Not if you wanted to stay in business, you wouldn’t.

Too many in the media are like the guy who owns the substandard gas station, ignoring complaints about their performance. The predictable results are fewer readers of newspapers and lower ratings for television news programs.

What should frighten all of us in this latest survey is the number of people who say they expect their loss of faith in the media to be permanent.

Does any other business so disrespect its current customers and not try to win back the disaffected? While A.G. Sulzberger is right to criticize the president for his incendiary remark, he should also consider putting his own house in order, asking former readers what can be done to rebuild trust, not only for the good of the profession, but for the greater good of the country.

Editor’s note: This year marks Cal Thomas’ 35th year as a syndicated columnist. Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribpub.com.