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    What America Thinks
    Higher Marks for the Media

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Sept. 7, 1998

    The past eight months have produced one surprise after another for those following polling on public attitudes toward President Clinton's illicit relationship with onetime White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

    Here's the latest bombshell from a new national survey sponsored by the Media Studies Center in New York: Americans are actually feeling better about the way the media are covering the crisis.

    Today, half of all Americans rate news coverage of the Lewinsky matter as either "excellent" or "good." In late January, immediately after the scandal broke, only slightly more than a third gave the media such high marks.

    The survey also found that six in 10 – 62 percent – also felt the news media coverage of Clinton has been fair, up from 54 percent in January.

    Similarly, Americans are happier with the way the media have treated Lewinsky – 67 percent currently say the press has been fair to her, up from 57 percent eight months ago. Attitudes toward independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, however, remain unchanged from earlier this year. Six in 10 say coverage has been generally fair.

    Significantly, these changes of heart – modest, though they may be – came immediately after Clinton acknowledged having an improper relationship with Lewinsky and lying about it to his family and to the American people.

    "The public is less inclined to kill the messenger when they find out the message is true," says Robert Giles, executive director of the Media Studies Center. "Going back to January, the press was under a lot of attack for using unidentified sources and reporting inaccuracies, but the news media have been vindicated ... with the development of this story."

    Other surveys confirm that the public is feeling better about the media's scandal coverage, even though serious doubts remain and attitudes could clearly shift as the story drags on into the fall.

    A Washington Post-ABC News survey after the president's address to the nation found that 55 percent of those interviewed said they thought the news media had treated Clinton fairly, up from 39 percent in late January.

    But while most think the media are being fair to Clinton, they still think reporters are overly fixated on the story: 76 percent in the Post-ABC News poll said the media were paying "too much" attention to the story, unchanged from 74 percent in January.

    The Media Studies Center survey, conducted Aug. 18-23 of 1,010 randomly sampled adults, also found Americans dissatisfied with the amount of news coverage devoted to the scandal. Six in 10 disagreed that the story was important enough to deserve the level of coverage it was getting – and nearly half – 47 percent – strongly disagreed with this view. "Just 25 percent said they thought the level of coverage given to Clinton/Lewinsky was justified due to its serious implications for Bill Clinton's presidency," center analysts wrote.

    About two in three – 64 percent – said the news media should have been paying more attention to following up on the bombings of American embassies in East Africa, rather than paying so much attention to the president's speech and other elements of the Lewinsky affair.

    The survey also found that 62 percent said the news media had "gone too far" in disclosing details of Clinton's private life, unchanged from the proportion who expressed this view in January.

    At the same time, 59 percent said Starr had gone too far in investigating Clinton's private life, "suggesting that the public really doesn't know who to blame."

    The survey also suggests that post-event commentary by analysts and reporters may have little impact on public opinion. At least that appears to have been the case following the president's address to the nation.

    Seven in 10 survey respondents said they either watched or read Clinton's address. Somewhat fewer – 54 percent – said they tuned into the post-speech analysis, although about a third spent 30 minutes or less watching.

    "Of those who watched or listened to the post-speech analysis, the vast majority (84 percent) said that it did not change their opinion of the president's speech one way or another," center analysts wrote. "About one in 10 said their opinion of the president's speech got worse as they listened to the analysis, while 3 percent said their opinion of the speech got better."

    Give Till It Feels Good

    Six in 10 Americans say it's "very important" for them to give money and volunteer their time to charitable organizations, while another 37 percent say it's somewhat important, according to a new survey on charitable giving sponsored by the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.

    The poll also found that two in three believe that "most charitable organizations are honest and ethical in their use of funds," while a third disagreed. Those numbers "reflect some recognition that there may be some rotten apples in the barrel and that identification with a worthy goal or simple labeling as a charity is not necessarily a guarantee of virtue," analysts wrote.

    Friends and Foes

    Canada and Great Britain are our best buddies, but most Americans agree that China is no friend of the United States. According to a new national survey conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, about nine out of 10 Americans identify Canada as our friend, while more than eight in 10 identified Great Britain as an ally. At least six in 10 also rated Australia, France, Mexico and Israel as U.S. allies. At the top of our enemies list: China. Only 35 percent of those surveyed said China was a friend.

    Views are changing toward one old enemy: 45 percent said Russia was an ally.

    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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