WG: The press is dangerously over-educated itself, in that reporters have developed different kinds of expertise themselves. And that brings them closer to their sources, more motivated to write for their approval. All this technocratic expertise encourages them to take a condescending view of the people they are writing for, especially in finance and economics. If all the elite experts assume Social Security is a problem, a reporter would lose respect if he or she seriously examined the counter arguments. Frankly, most political reporters don’t have a clue about the real facts. They write about Social Security as if it were just another welfare program. They do not seem to understand the surpluses are actually the savings of American workers—the money set aside for future retirement. This is virtuous behavior—the opposite of greed or the recklessness of financial elites.

TL: What has been other fallout from the rise of the techno-expert reporter?

WG: The new technological knowledge becomes a tool that blocks old-fashioned street reporting. The polling and focus groups work against old style reporting. Political reporters rely on the pseudo-science to tell them what people think instead of doing what reporters are supposed to do—talking to real people where they live, listening to their perspectives and respecting their views.

TL: How does this play out in day-to-day reporting?

WG: My sense from the way stories are written is that unless you have the “facts” of pseudo-scientific evidence, editors don’t want reporters making any observations on what they learned as reporters. This supposedly makes them more “objective,” but it does the opposite. They become more one-sided in their reporting.

TL: Doesn’t that make them more disconnected from the public?

WG: Yes. Reporters and editors are disturbed to learn that growing sectors of the public do not trust their reporting. But this is the natural result of one-sided reporting. It reflects the unconscious class bias of the media—looking up to selected expertise that’s in power and looking down on the everyday citizens. In the old days, when I started as a reporter, newspapers were far more diverse and representative in speaking to and for the variety of popular perspectives. Each newspaper might have its bias, left or right or something else, but there were countering opinions and perspectives that tended to keep the other side more honest. That variety is pretty much gone now, so lots of citizens are finding their own ways to inform themselves, putting their faith in the bloggers or other renegade sources. Who can blame them?

TL: Who are the losers in this paradigm?

WG: It’s pretty obvious. I start with the conviction that people in every station of life are not stupid. Most people are pretty capable of forming opinions and insights of their own, based on their own experiences and what they see happening around them. They don’t get everything right but—guess what—neither do the governing elites, the economists and policy wonks who tell us what is correct thinking. The financial collapse and economic breakdown are dramatic evidence of elite failure, yet I see most media reporting still relying on the same old sources as if nothing went wrong. In a functioning democracy, what the people think would be regarded as a vital source for informing democratic debate. That is what the people lose—their seat at the table.

TL: Do the losers care?

WG: As we are learning every day, most of them gave up on the press a long time ago. They realized that newspapers were not on their side. There was no longer that old-time relationship. People got the feeling that newspapers weren’t speaking for them. The new technologies give the “losers” new options for how to inform themselves. Some of these are half-baked or worse, but people will keep exploring alternatives and refining what they are willing to trust. The crucial point I am trying to make is that this process of citizens in a democracy keeping themselves informed does not belong to private enterprise. It does not depend on finding the right business model. People must find a way—and I think they will—regardless of whether newspaper and broadcasting owners want to assist them, or merely make money.

TL: Let’s go back and put all this in the context of the press coverage of Social Security. What should the press be reporting that they haven’t been?

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.