In a country increasingly divided into red and blue states, the media are taking on a more partisan coloration as well -- at least in the eyes of those who read and watch.
Republicans have come to distrust the media in greater numbers since President Bush took office, says a new poll released yesterday, while Democratic views are mostly unchanged.
Only about half as many Republicans as Democrats find the usual media suspects credible, says the Pew Research Center, including the New York Times, Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, CBS, ABC, NBC, National Public Radio and PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
"CNN's once-dominant credibility ratings have slumped in recent years, mostly among Republicans and independents," the survey says. "By comparison, the Fox News Channel's believability ratings have held steady -- both overall and within partisan groups."
While the percentage of people who rate CNN as highly credible has slid from 42 percent six years ago to 32 percent now, the study says, "more continue to say they can believe all or most of what they hear on CNN than say that about Fox News Channel," whose credibility rating is 25 percent. MSNBC clocks in at 22 percent. ("60 Minutes" edged the field with 33 percent.)
In a finding that surprised Andrew Kohut, the Pew center's director, 29 percent of Republicans say Fox News Channel is credible, only slightly more than the 26 percent of GOPers who feel that way about CNN. Among Democrats, though, 45 percent give CNN a thumbs up for credibility, compared with 24 percent for Fox News Channel.
CNN was quick to declare victory. "We're obviously pleased -- once again we've been voted the most trusted news organization in America," says spokesman Matthew Furman.
Asked about the decline in those credibility numbers, Furman says that "perceptions may change a bit year to year, but the important number is clear: Of all the news organizations included in the survey, our audience most closely mirrors the ideology of the American public."
Fox News Channel, the top-rated cable news network, sees it differently. "The study confirms that while our audience continues to increase and our credibility expands, our competitors are hemorrhaging viewers and losing America's trust," says spokeswoman Irena Briganti. She adds: "It's fair to ask why so many Democrats are watching CNN if everyone has to ask why so many conservatives are watching us."
The changing views "reflect the political polarization we've seen," Kohut says. "It reflects anger on the part of Republicans about the way the media's treated Bush lately, and also reflects the appeal of Fox News." Readers and viewers, he says, are "reacting to a perception of a political point of view, whether that means bias in political reports or tone."
This is a dramatic evolution since 1985, when Republicans were only slightly more distrustful of the media than Democrats. He puts part of the blame on the rise of cable "shout shows" that give the media a more starkly partisan image.
Pew pollsters interviewed 3,000 adults in April and May, and the survey has a margin of error of 2 percent.
Who's watching? More than half of Fox News Channel's regular viewers, 52 percent, describe themselves as conservative, compared with 40 percent four years ago. Only 13 percent say they are liberal, down from 20 percent. The rest call themselves moderate.
Other television audiences more closely reflect the general public. For CNN, 36 percent of regular viewers say they are conservative and 20 percent liberal. (In party terms, though, CNN's audience is 44 percent Democratic, up from 35 percent four years ago.) For MSNBC, it's 33 percent conservative and 22 percent liberal. Among viewers of the CBS, NBC and ABC nightly newscasts, 33 percent are self-identified conservatives and 18 percent liberals.
The trend continues in radio, where 77 percent of Rush Limbaugh's audience is conservative and 7 percent liberal. Limbaugh, in turn, says he no longer regularly reads the New York Times or watches the major network newscasts.
Bill O'Reilly's Fox audience is 72 percent conservative and 4 percent liberal, a shift to the right, while Larry King's CNN viewers are 35 percent conservative and 16 percent liberal. Figures are similar for Jay Leno and David Letterman (34 percent conservative, 21 percent liberal). Lehrer's PBS newscast draws a crowd that is 22 percent conservative and 27 percent liberal. National Public Radio, despite its left-leaning image, manages an almost equal split: 31 percent conservative, 33 percent moderate and 30 percent liberal.
Readership for such magazines as the New Yorker, Atlantic and Harper's tilts liberal and Democratic to a moderate degree, says Pew.
The decline in Republican trust in the media, compared with a Pew poll in 1998, is striking. The proportion of Republicans who find CBS News credible, for example, dropped from 23 percent to 15 percent. For the Wall Street Journal, despite its aggressively conservative editorial page, the figure plunged from 48 percent to 23 percent. (More Democrats, 29 percent, find the Journal credible.)
Journal Publisher Karen Elliott House says in a statement that she "would be surprised if it were true of the Journal because we don't view the world as divided between Democrats and Republicans. We focus on business news and issues of serious interest to business people. And we do so from a view that isn't partisan but rather seeks truth from facts." House adds that the editorial page "often finds Republicans closer to our positions than Democrats."
The credibility rating for Lehrer's "NewsHour," often praised for its fairness, dropped from 31 percent to 12 percent among Republicans, and USA Today from 20 percent to 14 percent. Even C-SPAN, which sets up separate phone lines for Republican and Democratic callers, has declined among GOP viewers, from 35 percent to 23 percent.
In another finding that mirrors the political world, Pew finds a gender gap in news consumption. It shows up in newspapers (47 percent of men are regular readers, compared with 37 percent of women), radio news (45-36), online news (33-25), talk radio (21-13) and cable news (41-35). On the other side of the divide, more women than men regularly watch the network morning shows (28 percent to 16 percent), network newsmagazines (26-17) and nightly news (37-30).
The survey also uncovers what might be called the Iraq effect, with 52 percent saying they track international news closely, not just when important developments occur, compared with 37 percent two years ago.
Blowing the Big One
The Tampa Bay Lightning may have won its first National Hockey League championship in a dramatic seventh game Monday night, but word didn't seem to reach the local paper.
The Tampa Tribune ran an editorial yesterday praising the team even though it had lost the Stanley Cup, which would be news to anyone who watched the game in Tampa.
"I was sick to my stomach," says Editorial Page Editor Rosemary Goudreau. "It's probably the worst feeling you can have in this business. There's no excuse for it, you got it wrong, our system didn't work."
As Goudreau explained in an online editor's note, she had prepared two editorials depending on the outcome -- a common newspaper practice -- and put the victory editorial on the computerized page. It was like taking "a puck in the gut," she wrote, when the wrong version ran. One reason the mistake wasn't spotted was the uplifting headline: "Lightning Gave Community More Than a Championship."
"People were very angry and upset," says Goudreau, who has become a hockey fan this year, but some callers appreciated the explanation. "It's just awful," she says. "The worst part is that we let our readers down."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.