Public opinion about the mainstream media has nose dived over the past twenty years. The polls provide a number of possible explanations for the change in attitudes. A review of views on media bias and performance.
"It's the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq War," Halperin said. "It was extreme bias--extreme pro-Obama coverage."
Public opinion research on the media agrees with Halperin. By a substantial margin, the American public believed it favored Obama throughout the campaign.
An explanation for the low marks is that the media has now become just another big, powerful institution--like big government, big business, and big labor.
The Pew Research Center reported in October that 70% of Americans thought that "most newspaper reporters and TV journalists" wanted to see Obama win the presidential election. Just 9% said they thought the media supported John McCain.
The public's perception of the media's Democratic slant has appeared in Pew questions about the candidates for the past four elections, though it has not been so extreme.
In mid-October 2004, 50% said the media wanted to see Kerry win; 22% said it favored Bush. In 2000, Americans thought the media preferred Gore (47%) to Bush (23%).
In both 1996 and 1992, the public said Bill Clinton was the media favorite (59% for Clinton, 17% for Dole in 1996) and (52% Clinton, 17% George H. W. Bush in 1992). In an online Harris Interactive survey from October that posed the question differently, 36% said the media favored both candidates equally, but almost four times as many said the media favored Obama over McCain (34% to 9%).
Most Americans, however, want to get their political news from news sources that don't have a particular political point of view. Two-thirds of respondents to Pew's biennial news consumption surveys give this response, while around a quarter say that they would prefer to get their political news from news sources that share their point of view.
Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are more likely than other groups to want to hear an echo of their views. Around three in 10 of people in those categories gave the latter response in the 2008 survey.
Not only do Americans perceive a Democratic tilt, but they also think the media are too liberal in general. In a 2008 Gallup survey, 47% described the media as too liberal, 36% as just about right and only 13% said it was too conservative. The results on this question have been stable since Gallup started asking it in 2001.
The public also sees dangerous changes in the quality of the media's reporting. In the early 1970s, nearly seven in 10 told Gallup that they had a great deal or a fair amount of "trust and confidence" in the mass media (newspapers, TV and radio) "when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly." Around three in 10 had not very much or no confidence and trust at all.
Gallup's 2008 results show that trust and confidence have fallen off a cliff. Just 43% had high confidence in 2008 while a solid majority, 56%, had low confidence--including 21% (a record high) who had no confidence at all. Three in 10 Republicans, 23% of independents and 10% of Democrats had no confidence in the media.
In 1985, in another Gallup question, 55% said news organizations usually get their facts straight. But only 36% gave that response the last time Gallup asked about it.
Given these findings, it's hardly surprising that Americans are watching less network news and reading fewer newspapers. In 1995, more than 60% told Gallup they watched network nightly news every night; that number has dropped, precipitously, to 35%. In 1965, 71% told Gallup they read a newspaper yesterday; in 2008, 34% told Pew they did. (It's possible they read their news on the Internet.)
Perceived partisan and ideological bias probably contributes to the decline in the mainstream media's standing, but other central institutions that don't have clear partisan leanings have also lost ground in the public opinion arena since the 1970s.
An explanation for the low marks is that the media has now become just another big, powerful institution--like big government, big business and big labor. Americans must be skeptical of bigness generally, and when it is combined with questionable performance and bias, their estimation of the industry turns unquestionably negative.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.