Any sensible kid in America wants to be a newsman when he grows up or, better still, when he doesn’t. Politicians may have the power to make laws and budgets, but it’s the journalists who make the politicians. Besides, even Presidents have to obey the laws. Journalists, on the other hand, are exempt—or so they tell us. In recent decades, editors and reporters have succeeded in transforming the First Amendment into a charter of aristocratic privilege. What had been intended as a simple prohibition against Federal infringements of free speech and the right to worship has become the rock under which pornographers and anchormen seek refuge whenever there is a chance to make a buck or improve the ratings. In recent memory, the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the major networks have defied established law, court orders, grand jury subpoenas, military secrecy, and elected officials. Perhaps most notorious was the 1981 Janet Cooke case, when Washington Post editors defiantly proclaimed that they would stand on their First Amendment rights in refusing to reveal the whereabouts of the eight-year-old heroin addict described in Cooke’s feature article—until it was finally discovered that the “boy” was a figment of Cooke’s well-paid imagination.

The public’s right to know is apparently selective. It doesn’t cover the Post, nor does it cover CBS, which requested the court to prevent General Westmoreland from publicizing any of the information the network was forced to turn over to him. Many journalists now believe that their constitutional status is so holy that they may employ subterfuge and deception. Witness the recent case reported in the New York Times: a newspaper writer posed as a morgue attendant in order to get an exclusive interview with the family of a murder victim. In a candid 1984 editorial entitled “First Amendment Junkies,” The New Republic summed up the situation.

In recent years, journalists have asserted a constitutional right not to testify in front of grand juries, not to submit to search warrants, not to give depositions in civil lawsuits, and not to have their notes and documents subpoenaed. . . . But by definition, such exemptions from the normal duties of citizenship cannot be granted to everyone.

The privileges claimed by journalists resemble the rights enjoyed by the clergy at the greatest extent of their power. For three centuries the kings of England had to wage an unremitting struggle against a large clerical class that claimed immunity from the royal law. In some cases, the flunky who swept out the church could claim the right of clergy to be tried in an ecclesiastical court, even for crimes like rape. In America, clergymen have never enjoyed a very privileged status (even draft exemption was granted by Congress only as a revocable privilege), and almost nothing remains of the old rights of sanctuary or the privilege of the confessional. But when a minister goes to jail for refusing to betray his sources, don’t expect it to make the headlines: the Fourth Estate is jealous of its privileges.

The establishment of the Fourth Estate as priestly class might be acceptable—or at least bearable—if most Americans thought newsmen could be trusted and respected. But we have never especially esteemed journalists, and in recent years public regard for newsmen has reached all-time lows. A survey reported last year in U.S. News & World Report found that three out of four Americans regard the press as exploitive and that the country as a whole ranks journalists just above used-car salesmen in honesty. A 1984 Newsweek survey discovered that one-third of Americans feel strong confidence in the country’s newspapers and only one-fourth in the television networks. (Even our chaotic public schools received a stronger vote of confidence.) At a seminar of media leaders sponsored last year by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Burton Benjamin of CBS observed that during his 30 years with the network he had never before seen such “intense unrelenting hostility toward television news. . . . [W]e are perceived as arrogant, as elitists, as self-appointed people setting a national agenda.” Ellis Cose, director of the Institute for Journalism Education at Berkeley recently conceded: “Never has there been such widespread questioning of journalism and journalists.”

This public hostility is not hard to explain. Many of us recall the gross distortions in media reporting on Vietnam (now well-documented in Peter Braestrup’s The Big Story). Nothing since Vietnam has increased our confidence in media coverage of military operations: newspapers rush into print the compromising and illegal disclosures of disaffected Pentagon employees and renegade CIA agents; reporters vie with each other to see who can disclose the most sensitive details of classified space shuttle flights; Navy communications are disrupted for weeks because of a leak in Newsweek—even a special test last year in Central America of arrangements for media presence during military action was quickly sabotaged by leaks that could have proved fatal had the operation been the real thing. No wonder most Americans approved of President Reagan’s decision to exclude the press from Grenada. (When Daniel Schorr complained to one Pentagon official about the media ban, the officer responded: “Listen, the next time we have an invasion, we’ll put the reporters in the first wave. Just reporters, no soldiers.”)

If the press behaved badly over Grenada, their conduct in the aftermath of the space shuttle disaster was revolting. Carrion crows like Sam Donaldson and the harpies on NPR did not waste a minute before condemning NASA and calling the entire manned flight program into question. We know why they don’t like the space program—it contributes to national defense, stimulates technological innovation, and gives us something to be proud of. But there was something ghoulish in the “I told you so’s” which started even while pieces of debris were still falling into the Atlantic.

But perhaps even more fundamental as an irritant in the public mind is the privileged status that journalists have arrogated to themselves. In trying to sort through the reasons for public disaffection with the media, Newsweek noted that “there is a strong public sense that [the media] sometimes see themselves as exempt from the normal responsibilities of citizenship.” Four years ago, The Christian Century complained that some reporters have made “deception an accepted part of investigative reporting” while others frequently abuse the use of confidential sources. “The First Amendment,” the Century argued, “should not mean that journalists are absolved from responsibility as citizens and as members of the community.”

A few media leaders now belatedly acknowledge that their reckless aloofness from the American public must be remedied. Tom Johnson, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, conceded in 1983 that “many in our profession have been guilty of conflicts of interest, have been guilty of presenting outright fiction as fact, have been guilty of irresponsible and prejudicial reporting.” Professor Cose of Berkeley says that “it is time for those of us in journalism to admit what many of our critics have long maintained. As a group, we are self-righteous, often inaccessible brats, considerably more exclusionary than we care to acknowledge.” NBC’s John Chancellor is now even willing to contemplate the unthinkable possibility that newsmen may have to—at least for a time—voluntarily drop their claims to First Amendment privilege and obey the law like everybody else.

Most journalists are not willing to admit the truth. They blame the public for demanding perfection. At last year’s seminar at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a journalism professor suggested that most popular resentment against the media is the result of “little things” like misleading headlines or tasteless photographs—errors he attributed to the small dailies and not the blameless “national networks and big metropolitan newspapers.” But another conferee observed: “We come across as a high and mighty profession. We do not come across as what we are, folks who entered journalism to perform a genuine public service.” The image-makers have an image problem.

Almost no one, apart from Reed Irvine, is willing to take on the media, perhaps because they are too powerful. Remember Richard Nixon? He was the last President who tried a direct confrontation. In the present context, attacking Dan Rather makes as much sense as writing an expose on the Five Families: Your career ends up wearing a cement overcoat. Conservative journahsts do attack the media bias in the press but do not generally engage in wholesale denunciations of First Amendment privileges. They are, after all, journalists.

Despite the lack of serious criticism, public disenchantment will probably increase. In one sense, this is unfortunate. It is regrettable any time national institutions become alienated from Middle America. On the other hand, the rage against the media is a reason for hope: it means that average Americans have not yet surrendered to the press lords so eager to tell us how to think and feel and vote. It means we value civil order and lawfulness enough to resent those who put the privileges of their order above the law. Four centuries ago when Henry VIII seized the monasteries and Church lands, many Englishmen rejoiced at the seizure because of the abuses long endured as a matter of “rights of clergy.” If CBS, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and all the other privileged media institutions are not quicker to learn some humility, they may one day confront a ban on newsmen that extends far beyond Grenada.