RANCE CRAIN;CYNICAL AMERICANS TURN INTO WATCHDOGS

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Newspapers have developed an interesting way to beat the paper crunch that's playing havoc with their bottom lines: They are becoming more expendable.

The International Federation of Newspaper Publishers reported that newspaper circulation fell in most countries last year. Sales were off 1.87% in Europe, 1.33% in the U.S. but only 0.17% in Japan, which led the world in daily newspaper sales.

It's no wonder that the Japanese are the world's most prolific newspaper readers. They're not only better educated than we are in this country, but they are also more willing to accept what they read.

That's increasingly not the case with U.S. readers. A new study by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press indicated the public is much more cynical about the performance of political, business and civic leaders than journalists.

"The public's profound distrust of influential groups, greater than the press and national and local leaders, raises deep new questions about the causes and consequences of public cynicism," the report stated. "Have elite groups and the public increasingly different world views? Is the press to blame? Can the press continue to play an effective watchdog role if the public is so skeptical of it and all other elites?"

Isn't it interesting that the study considers the press to be part and parcel of the elite crowd? Many big newspapers are owned by giant media conglomerates, and journalists themselves identify more with the power elite of their own companies and the high-level sources they cultivate than the interests of readers.

It is from this lofty perch the press tends to write from the viewpoint of what's in the best interests of society-in a very theoretical and naive way. This highly skewed view just doesn't jibe with the practical experience of their readers.

Take welfare reform. The press tends to view any cuts or reallocation of welfare money as taking food out of the mouths of hungry babies. The public, far more skeptical, thinks it's common sense that much of the money has been diverted to corruption of the system. People know the media's reporting is based on information from social service organizations that feed off welfare programs.

How can the press continue to play its traditional watchdog role when it is a captive of the institutions it seeks to cover? It has become far too willing to accept views from those whose purpose is to protect the status quo and far too unwilling to give credence to those trying to find a new way.

That helps to explain why the media gave short shrift to the Republican Party's Contract with America, even though it proved to be very influential to the American voter.

Increasingly, U.S. readers are filtering what they read through their own prism of what makes sense to them. If that adds up to cynicism, it's the same brand they bring to evaluate all our major institutions. What's wrong with readers becoming their own watchdogs?

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