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Where's Clark Kent?

"Nobody phones the paper expecting to find a hero anymore," according to the current New York Review of Books essay "Goodbye to Newspapers."

And yesterday's Harris Poll seconds that notion, as Editor and Publisher points out:

Hang down your head, journalist -- your fellow Americans don't think your career is much to be proud of.

The annual Harris Poll measuring public perceptions of 23 professions and occupations came out Wednesday -- and you can find journalists in the Bottom Ten.

It's conventional wisdom, of course, that journalism has truly taken a beating in terms of esteem and prestige in recent years. Journalists take a back seat to used car salesmen and ambulance-chasing lawyers nowadays, prompting a sigh from the ink-stained crowd as they order another brew and talk about the Good Ol' Days.

According to the data, only 13 percent of 2007 respondents consider journalists possessing "very great prestige." That's not surprising, given the stormy climate of MediaLand. Conventional wisdom has it that that the media has tanked, having endured several self-inflicted wounds in the past 5 or 10 years. But you'd think that back in the 1970s – after Watergate, the ultimate watchdog success story – reporting would be way way higher than that, right?

Not so much.

Back in 1977, the number of respondents who held journalists in high regard was … wait for it … 17 percent. So after decades of scandals and tarnished Pulitzers and name-calling and tabloid fixations, journalists have fallen a less-than-overwhelming 4 percent in the public's eyes.

The Harris Poll doesn't seem to go farther back than that – and calls for comment were not returned – but I suspect there was a time when journalists were seen better.

For example: What did Superman do in his spare time? He was a mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. We all know this. People used to see journalists more as watchdogs and social do-gooders, so it wasn't anywhere near a stretch to have America's greatest superhero working a news beat.

I've got three observations about the historical trend:

  • Journalists aren't the sorts to seek and cultivate public approval ratings, as their job is to find News. And News is, as the old phrase goes, "Something that someone, somewhere wants hidden." You don't make friends by rattling cages.
    And …
  • Americans are a jaded and cynical bunch. All of the "prestige" ratings – but for two – have gone down in the past 30 years. We just don't think very highly of anything or anybody these days, it seems.
    But …
  • The one silver lining in the study? The one profession that has seen the best increase in public perception? Teaching. By 25 percent. That's great news, period.

    The Harris Poll results may look like news, but they're not. With journalism having devolved into one big battle royale of egos and brands and blowhards trying to outdo one another and belittle the competition – along with alternative media and bloggers blowing spitballs at mainstream reporters – that 13 percent mark may end up being the highest prestige rating we see for awhile. Part of that is the public mood, for sure. But let's face it: Journalism isn't a popularity contest; if it is, you're doing it wrong.

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