Tuning out

Posted: Jun 07, 2004 12:00 AM

 There?s panic at TV networks across the country. Or at least, there should be.
 An annual Gallup poll shows that only 30 percent of Americans have confidence in television news. The same 30 percent express confidence in newspapers. That puts these journalistic institutions near the bottom of the survey, behind the military (75 percent confidence), organized religion (53 percent) and even the criminal-justice system (34 percent).

It also means journalists have dropped significantly from  their high reached in 2000, when TV ?enjoyed? 36 percent confidence, and newspapers reached 37 percent.

 How is it possible that these paragons of journalism, which considered it newsworthy when President Bush?s approval rating recently dropped below 50 percent, are even less popular than he is? A May 31 front-page story in The Washington Post titled ?From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity? helps explain why.

Staff writers Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei hammered out some 2,000 words accusing the administration of, basically, practicing politics. That is, running negative campaign ads.
?Bush so far has aired 49,050 negative ads in the top 100 markets, or 75 percent of his advertising. Kerry has run 13,336 negative ads -- or 27 percent of his total,? they wrote. That?s true, as far as it goes. But that overlooks a major source of campaign ads -- Democratic-leaning ?527? groups.

The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law was supposed to take alleged corruption out of politics by taking away ?soft money,? the unlimited contributions that individuals could make to a party or group. Democrats overwhelmingly supported the law.

But now that it?s in effect, it?s Democrats who have located the first loophole. ?527? groups, named for a section of the federal tax code, are not covered by McCain-Feingold.
They may collect as much money and run as many campaign ads as they like, as long as they don?t coordinate with a political party. Moveon.org, and the Media Fund are two large 527s.

So where?s the imbalance? As Milbank and VandeHei would have known, if they?d read their own paper on March 24: ?When Kerry?s ad spending is combined with that of the two independent groups, Democrats have been able to go toe to toe with the president.?

By nature, virtually all of the 527 advertising is going to be negative. And in just the last three months, they?ve run $39 million worth of ads. When combined with the  $43 million Kerry spent during that period, it?s far more than Bush?s three-month total of $69 million.

The May 31 story goes on to accuse Vice President Cheney of ?stretching the truth.? Cheney had said that in Kerry?s view, ?opposing terrorism is far less of a military operation and more of a law enforcement operation.? But ?Kerry did not say what Cheney attributes to him,? Milbank and VandeHei claim.

Oh? Again, they need to read their own paper. ?I will use our military when necessary, but [the war on terrorism] is not primarily a military operation,? the Post quoted Kerry as saying on April 19, after the senator appeared on ?Meet The Press.? ?It?s an intelligence-gathering, law-enforcement, public-diplomacy effort.? It?s not Cheney who?s stretching the truth here.

Of course, an unfair story about the president is nothing new for Milbank. Just a week earlier, he penned a brief story about Bush taking a spill during mile 16 of a 17-mile mountain bike ride. ?For the president, there is something of a history of hapless encounters with sporting activities,? Milbank wrote.

As an example, ?In January 2002, Bush was on the third floor of the White House residence, watching a football playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins when he choked on a pretzel. This caused him to faint and fall, bruising and scraping his face.?

Hmm. Now, the Post has indeed run at least two front-page stories about competitive eating in recent months. But most fair-minded observers, even those who dislike the president, will agree that a pretzel-eating mishap has no place in a story about sports injuries.

The media?s real problem, as the Milbank-VandeHei story illustrates, is that it?s out of touch. There simply aren?t enough conservative voices inside newsrooms pointing out the obvious biases in many stories.

After all, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg recently found that 41 percent of Americans identify themselves as ?conservative.? About one in five call themselves ?liberal.? But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press last month found that a shocking 34 percent of national journalists describe themselves as liberals. Only 7 percent label themselves conservative.

Even those in the newsroom realize this is a problem -- more than 40 percent of the journalists surveyed thought that reporters too often let their ideological views show in their reporting. And those biases, of course, are liberal ones.

We?ll see if reporters are willing to fix this problem. Because unless the media become fairer and more balanced, our confidence is going to keep plunging.