Hate the press? You’re probably a Republican Fox News viewer

The headline in Editor & Publisher screams in tabloid style: “Poll: U.S. Public Sees Media as Biased, Inaccurate and Uncaring.” But that’s not the real news to be found in the latest Pew Research Center report on the public’s views of the press.

The report says much about how the public views the press, but it says far more about the public itself and how it has become polarized in those views. Instead of assessing the Pew report for perceptions of press failures, study it to see who is critical of what and how their ideologies color their views of the press.

Yes, people criticize the press. And yes, that criticism has grown since 1985, when the poll was first conducted. Today, according to the Pew report, 32 percent of poll respondents find the press immoral, nearly three times the number in 1985. About 36 percent say the press hurts democracy, up a third from 1985. About 53 percent often find stories inaccurate, up from 34 percent. About 55 percent find the press politically biased, a number that’s been relatively stable since 1999.

But your political ideology plays a significant role in how you assess the press, the report says.

If you are a Republican, then you’re less likely to have a favorable opinion of network TV news (56 percent) than a Democrat (84 percent).

If you’re Republican, you’re less like to have a favorable opinion of your local daily newspaper (68 percent) than a Democrat (86 percent).

And, if you’re a Republican, you’re less likely to have a favorable opinion of national newspapers (41 percent) than a Democrat (79 percent).

But a snapshot in time is no reflection of change: In the mid-1980s, Republicans and Democrats alike had strongly favorable opinions of network TV news, the daily newspaper and national newspapers (generally in the mid- to high 80s). But Republicans’ opinion of the press has dropped like a stone while Democrats’ opinion has remained substantially the same.

So why is that? The decline in the GOP’s favorability rating of the press began during President Reagan’s administration and carried through President Bush I and President Clinton. It also marked the ascendancy of GOP political consultants Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater, who remade political campaigns and presidential policy initiatives into a game of “bypassing the press.” They were influential in helping Reagan’s debate performance and guiding President Bush to his win over liberal Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis. In 1996 Mr. Ailes created the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Republicans, through the examples of Presidents Reagan and Bush I, found they no longer needed the filtered conduit of the “biased, liberal press.” The GOP had developed a conservative television network and a remarkable party apparatus (thanks to Richard Viguerie’s ground-breaking use of direct mail for political communication and fundraising) to bypass the filters of the “liberal” press.

The Democrats had no reason to change their favorability rating of the press; they had always thought the press (often incorrectly) to be on their side. Democrats depended on the press for their messaging strategy; the GOP bypassed it.

It’s not surprising, then, that regular viewers of the Fox News Channel tend to be conservative, Republican and highly critical of the press.

Those respondents who cite Fox as their principal news source say the press is too critical of America (52 percent). Only 36 percent of CNN viewers and 29 percent of network TV news find the press too critical of the nation.

Only 45 percent of Fox viewers say the press has been fair in its coverage of President George W. Bush compared with 70 percent of CNN viewers and 68 percent of network TV news viewers.

Fox viewers are more critical of press accuracy. Sixty-three percent say stories are often inaccurate compared with CNN viewers (46 percent) and network TV news viewers (41 percent).

About 46 percent of Republican respondents to the poll compared with only those who cite Fox as their main news source (57 percent) say the press hurts democracy. About 63 percent of all Republican respondents compared with Fox viewers (71 percent) say the press is too critical of America. And 75 percent of Republican respondents compared with Fox viewers (82 percent) say news organizations are often influenced by powerful people and organizations.

The Pew Center’s poll reflects the public’s perception of the press; it does not test the accuracy or validity of the perceptions. It ought to be read through a lens of needed change by news professionals who care about charges of bias and inaccuracy, but the rest of us should note what it says about us — and the ideological lenses through which we view the press.

11 replies »

  1. I’m a little confused. Fox, from what you guys say, is a right-wing news station? So it would be a Republican home? Yet a majority of Republicans find Fox’s coverage of GWB unfair? Because they treat him too nicely or too harshly? Either way I feel like I missed something.

    I’ll come back to comments made earlier when I wrote about the Wall Street Journal … is it really true to say – given these polarised opinions – that the press is important for social and cultural identity? Unless it’s an identity based on not believing the media?

  2. Gavin,

    The point is that MORE Republicans tend to think the press coverage of GWB is unfair than do Democrats. Not all Republicans fall lock-step with Fox News and its viewers. Some can actually think for themselves. (I can see the hate mail pouring in now …)

  3. FOX News is the “GW Channel”. Their credibility mirrors that of
    “Baghdad Bob”. It is noteworthy that FOX is the only news service that the President will do a inteerview with and that his press spokesman
    is Tony Snow (aka “Snow-job”) from Fox News.

    FOX is propaganda. Isn’t that a shame? GW is no better than Kim
    Chong Il, Chavez, Castro, or any other of the despots that America
    has climbed in bed with……….

  4. Denny,

    Nice piece. This provides some nice statistical proof that the Right’s noise machine is inside people’s heads in ways that Ailes could only dream of.


    Fox viewers think Bush gets a raw deal from the press in smaller numbers than viewers of CNN, et al. That’s because Fox is sycophantic to Bush to a nauseating degree. CNN and especially MSNBC dare to question the emperor. Fox just keeps yelling, “How dare you question GWB? It’s war time?” Although, as we know, they don’t cover the war much….See my piece here:

  5. Now wait just a minute… When you watch CNN or MSNBC you often get 3 or 4 left wingers discussing why bush is so bad. If they include a right winger, they are often oppenly hostile. And lets also not forget Rather producing false documents on a made up story just to come up with extra negative news.

    I would agree that Fox commentators are conservatives for the most part, but the other networks are liberals for the most part.

    Just as you see fox as sycophantic to bush, many people see CNN and others as sycophantic to the liberal agenda and nothing more than the democratic propaganda machine.

    Truth is, you need to get your news from serveral sources to determine the whole story as none of the networks are going to give you an unbiased picture.

  6. I wonder how many people that knock Fox have actually sat down and watched it for a week?

    This brings me to a story about an extremely liberal friend of mine. I once asked her what she thought about Rush Limbaugh. She gave the standard boilerplate leftist answer. When I asked her if she had ever listened to him, her answer was “Yes.” I asked her what Rush mainly spoke about and her answer was, “Well….things like traditional values, and that a woman’s place is in the home…stuff like that.” I told her flat out that she was a liar, and that she had never listened to Rush. Finally, she addmitted that I was right.

    Personally, I don’t watch Fox, listen to any conservative radio, or read conservative journals. They would just be preaching to the choir, and I’m very comfortable in my beliefs. I like to get opinion from the other side, like this blog.

    You might not get it, but y’all make me think. That’s a good thing.


  7. Exactly! I like to have intelligent debate as it helps me understand the other position. Alot of people spew on about this network or that speaker, but don’t ever listen or watch. They often get their facts from what somebody else told them somebody said or worse yet, what somebody meant.

  8. It’s truly disturbing that so many people watch Fox News thinking that it’s anything but a right wing propaganda machine. It should be illegal for them to label what they do as “news.”