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 â€” and the ideological lenses through which we view the press.