Survey Finds Angst-Strained Wretches in the Fourth Estate
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2004; Page C01
More than half of those surveyed say the media haven't been tough enough on President Bush.
Nearly half say reporting is increasingly sloppy and filled with errors.
And almost half say journalists often let their ideological views color their work.
Media bashers? Disaffected Democrats? No, these negative views are being expressed by journalists and executives at national media outlets. And local journalists aren't far behind in their criticism.
A joint project by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism reveals a darkly pessimistic view of the profession among its own members, often echoing the criticisms of the public at large.
The 55 percent of national journalists, and 37 percent of local ones, who see the media as soft on Bush may well be reflecting their own views of the president. At national outlets, 34 percent describe themselves as liberal, 54 percent as moderate and 7 percent as conservative. (The local split was 23-61-12.) Nearly 7 in 10 of the liberal national journalists criticized the Bush coverage.
"You'd expect the minority who say they have a liberal point of view to be more critical of the press when it comes to Bush," says Pew Director Andrew Kohut, whose organization interviewed 547 journalists. But he noted that 44 percent of the self-described moderates also hold that view.
Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director, says the growing proportion of self-identified liberals in the national media -- and the fact that "conservatives are not very well represented" -- is having an impact. "This is something journalists should worry about," he says. "Maybe diversity in the newsroom needs to mean more than ethnic and gender diversity."
The survey confirmed that national journalists are to the left of the public on social issues. Nine in 10 say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral (40 percent of the public thinks this way). As might have been inferred from the upbeat coverage of gay marriage in Massachusetts, 88 percent of national journalists say society should accept homosexuality; only about half the public agrees.
In a related finding, 31 percent of national journalists now have a great deal of confidence in the public's election choices, compared with 52 percent at the end of the Clinton administration. The clear implication is that many media people feel superior to their customers.
Asked to identify a media outlet they view as especially conservative, 69 percent of national journalists chose Fox News. As for an especially liberal organization, 20 percent named the New York Times. (The Washington Post was the runner-up at 4 percent, followed by CBS, ABC, CNN and NPR at 2 percent each. On the conservative question, Fox was followed by the Washington Times, named by 9 percent, and the Wall Street Journal at 8 percent.)
What the report calls a "crisis of confidence" permeates the findings. Two-thirds of national media staffers, and 57 percent of the locals, believe that profit pressures are seriously hurting news coverage. Nearly half of national journalists say the press is too timid. Almost two-thirds say there are too many cable talk shows.
But despite the Jayson Blair scandal at the Times and the Jack Kelley debacle at USA Today, only 5 percent of national journalists (and 6 percent of locals) see ethics or a lack of standards as the biggest problem in the business. About three-quarters say plagiarism is being exposed more often but hasn't increased.
And there's a definite generation gap. Only 1 in 10 journalists under 35, but a third of those over 55, say credibility is the industry's biggest problem.
What's going right? Broadcast journalists were most likely to mention the speed of coverage, while print journalists focused on the quality of stories and the media's watchdog role.
Major national newspapers got the highest grades from 92 percent of national journalists and 80 percent of local ones. As for network and cable news, 43 percent of national staffers gave them top marks. Local TV news finished last, garnering top ratings from 21 percent of national journalists and 32 percent of the locals.
One interesting split: While 57 percent of media executives say the profession is headed in the right direction, 54 percent of reporters say things are on the wrong track.
"Journalists definitely seem more divided from the bosses," Rosenstiel says. "They think economics that are beyond their control are doing more damage than they did five years ago."
The bottom line, says Kohut: "The press is an unhappy lot. They don't feel good about our profession in many ways."
Reuters reported last week that U.S. soldiers beat three Iraqis working for the wire service and subjected them to sexual and religious taunts while they were detained in Iraq in January.
The story also said that that an Iraqi journalist working for NBC, arrested at the same time, had been beaten and mistreated.
Which raises an intriguing question: Why did this take so long to become news?
Reuters published four stories that were primarily about the incident in January and February, and put out a press release, but they attracted little U.S. media coverage. (The story was picked up by some British papers and Toronto's Globe and Mail.) The likely reason: The Reuters dispatches referred only to the "arrest and mistreatment" of the staffers -- who say they were deprived of sleep, kicked and hit, had bags placed over their heads and were sexually taunted -- but not the chilling details.
"We certainly would have been willing to do that, but our employees didn't want that to happen," says Reuters spokesman Stephen Naru. "They were very shamed by it. . . . We respected their wishes."
Reuters executives were frustrated that the mistreatment didn't draw more media attention, Naru says. "It wasn't for lack of trying. . . . Frankly, not a lot of people have cared until now."
One earlier Reuters piece said: "A Reuters spokesman declined to give further details pending a response from U.S. authorities."
A brigadier general said at the time that guerrillas posing as journalists had fired on American paratroopers near Fallujah, where a U.S. helicopter had been shot down. The four men were released after 72 hours.
Even after the story of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib exploded, Reuters held its fire, waiting for the results of a military inquiry. The Pentagon told Reuters last week -- in a letter dated March 5 -- that there was no evidence the employees had been tortured or abused. This "infuriated" the staffers into agreeing to describe their ordeal, says Naru, who noted that investigators had never even interviewed the men. "The Reuters personnel did provide statements with the allegations about their detention," says Pentagon spoeksman Bryan Whitman.
NBC Vice President Bill Wheatley says its stringer, the brother of one of the Reuters crew, was also reluctant to go public. "There was some sense of humiliation on his part, and we were waiting for a report from the Pentagon," he says, adding that "we went back to our guy" after the Reuters staffers agreed to divulge details. But NBC still hasn't reported the news on its own, except briefly on MSNBC.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company