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    What America Thinks
    Reporting on the Media

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Feb. 16, 1998

    Americans may be giving President Clinton the benefit of the doubt, but there's no doubt how the public feels about the way the media is covering the White House intern scandal.

    Too much bedroom snooping, too much rumormongering, too much biased reporting – and much too much of everything, according to recent national surveys.

    "While the public is divided over how good a job the media is doing covering the allegations against Clinton overall, they are unified in their criticism of the press for failing to check the facts in this story and for being biased against the president," according to an analysis of a new survey of 844 randomly selected adults conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

    Among its major findings:

    • Two in three said the media was doing an "only fair" to a "poor" job of "checking facts before reporting."
    • Six in 10 faulted the press for not being objective.
    • Half said the media was failing in its fundamental role of "providing the public with the information it needs."
    • Half said the media was not doing a good job of "providing the right amount of coverage."

    Just as the intern scandal has managed to unite Americans behind Clinton, so too has criticism of the media provided the public with common ground.

    "Questions about press practices in covering the scandal elicit strong criticism from much of the public," Pew analysts say. This unity transcends partisanship: "While many Republicans are critical of the media, especially when it comes to checking the facts, Democrats are more critical in each regard."

    Those findings echo the results of a Washington Post survey of 1,390 randomly selected adults conducted Jan. 21-24 and follow-up interviews with survey participants. It found that 56 percent of those interviewed said the media was being unfair to Clinton in its coverage of the scandal. And three in four said media coverage of the scandal was excessive.

    "The public strikes me as level-headed and sedate; it's the journalists who seem frantic and mob-like," says Larry Jacobs, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

    "There's just been way too much" news coverage, says Theodore Armstrong, 46, an accountant living in New York's Bronx who was interviewed in the poll. "That's the only thing that's been on the television and in the papers. It's a big story but personally, they've gone overboard."

    Garnet Blatchford, 41, a physician in Elkhorn, Neb., disagrees. "I don't think necessarily it's too much or too little. It's big news when it involves the president, so I'd say [it is] about right."

    Other surveys suggest that Blatchford's view is in the minority. A national poll of 1,003 adults by the University of Connecticut found that six in 10 said the media has gone "too far" in disclosing details of Clinton's private life. And eight in 10 – 81 percent – said the news media was mostly interested in "attracting a large audience," while just 14 percent said reporters were primarily interested in "getting to the bottom of the story."

    Eight in 10 also described coverage as excessive, and found widespread distaste for journalists who did anything other than just report the facts. Nearly two in three – 63 percent – disagreed with the statement that part of a journalist's job "is to speculate on what might happen next in a story." (The Pew Center poll provided a useful elaboration of these findings: 55 percent faulted the quantity of news coverage, but eight in 10 "say there has been too much discussion by commentators and analysts.")

    The survey did find some pluses for the media: 58 percent said they found the scandal coverage "informative" and nearly as many found it "interesting." Still, 71 percent said it was "embarrassing"; 67 percent said it was "biased"; 60 percent termed it "irresponsible"; and 57 percent said it was "disgusting."

    These criticisms are nothing new, Kohut says. The latest round of perceived abuses merely offer additional evidence to support an "already critical view of press practices, and they have added to public wariness about the media's accuracy and its watchdog role."

    Nearly two in three – 63 percent – believe that news stories are "often inaccurate," a 7 percentage-point jump in just a year, and "by far the worst rating the press has received on this in a decade."

    And while supporters of a "watchdog" press outnumbered critics by a more than 2 to 1 margin between 1984 and 1994, "today, a much narrower 55 percent majority believes that press criticism 'keeps political leaders from doing things that should be done.'"

    Yet there's some good news for the media in these surveys. "The public continues to value the press in spite of its perceived flaws," Pew analysts say. Seven in 10 have a generally favorable view of large, nationally influential newspapers and slightly more have a favorable view of television network news (though the percentage expressing strongly favorable views has dropped).

    "Just as many Americans dislike Bill Clinton personally yet approve of his policies, the public continues to value the press in spite of its perceived flaws," Pew analysts conclude.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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