The Split Between the Public and the Press

IN the aftermath of the Gulf war, journalists have worried about what they see as ``anti-press attitudes'' in the US public. Some of their concern stems from the fact that most Americans backed without apparent reservation the restrictions which the military imposed on press coverage. For example, a Feb. 24 USA Today poll noted that ``the Pentagon limited access to the front and imposed a partial news blackout as the ground war began.'' Asked how they felt about these limitations, only 11 percent of the respondents said the government had unduly restricted coverage. Fifty-five percent thought the level of coverage permitted was about right, and 31 percent believed coverage restrictions hadn't been severe enough.

More is at issue, though, than these natural differences between professional news gatherers with a stake in unlimited access, and the general public. David Gergen wrote recently in US News and World Report that the press's coverage of the Gulf crisis left millions with ``a sour distaste for journalists.'' Opinion surveys have picked up an unmistakable element of resentment.

In a poll Feb. 14 ABC News and the Washington Post asked, ``If it were discovered that the Iraqis have a military command center inside the only hotel in Baghdad where American news reporters are allowed to stay ... [what] do you think the US military should do?'' Only 30 percent picked the option, ``Do not bomb the hotel if any reporters ... might be killed.'' Sixty-two percent chose another among three options: ``Announce a deadline for reporters ... to leave, then bomb the hotel even if they're still there.''

Gergen's explanation for such evident frustration seems to me the right one: Many Americans saw a divide between their own feelings on the crisis and those of many reporters. The latter were generally more skeptical about the war and US efforts - and it showed.

I don't know of a single systematic survey of press attitudes on the conflict. We do know from carefully designed surveys, however, that the centers of gravity in the press and in the public have been far apart on social and political issues for a quarter century.

Large, parallel surveys of journalists and the general public taken by the Los Angeles Times in 1985 give us a good sense of just how great the attitudinal distance is. At the time this polling was conducted, the public said by 56 to 27 percent that it favored the way Ronald Reagan was handling the presidency; among reporters for large-circulation newspapers (100,000-plus copies), however, the response was 25 percent in favor, 62 percent opposed. Twenty-three percent of the populace called themselves li berals, as against 56 percent of the reporters. On abortion rights, 49 percent of the public but 85 percent of the journalists took a stance in favor of such rights. Allowing school prayer was endorsed by 74 percent of the public, by just 20 percent of the press. Those brought up Protestant or Roman Catholic were asked whether at present they ``practice a religion'': 82 percent in the public, but only 46 percent of the journalists, said they did.

In most regards, national journalists hold to social and political views that closely resemble those of two other groups: professors in the social sciences and humanities, and Democratic party activists. Journalists aren't party activists, but in 1984 they reported voting for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan by a margin of 66 to 16 percent (the rest did not voting or backed a minor candidate). Similarly, a 1968 poll had shown journalists voting for Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon by almost 7 to 1.

Arguments go on as to how much journalists' social and political views influence the way they report events. I can't add anything on this, other than that I know my own social outlook and political values profoundly affect the way I teach American government. I don't believe that many reporters can avoid the ``trap of ideology'' either.

Activists on the right have long complained about ``media bias.'' That those with highly developed conservative attitudes would regularly find fault with the reporting of a group with highly developed liberal attitudes is inevitable. Most of the general public just don't follow news coverage that closely, however, so public/press tensions are usually muted. The Gulf situation was unusual not because the gap between the two groups in outlook on the war was especially large, but because the public was so tuned to coverage that it became quite intensely aware that its views differed from those of most reporters.

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