IN 1959 journalist and commentator Douglass Cater described the imposing position that the press had assumed in American politics with an instructive title: "The Fourth Branch of Government." News gathering and reporting had become so primary an element in the decisionmaking of a modern democracy, Mr. Cater argued, that the news media found themselves playing an almost formal governmental role. The "Fourth Branch" has, of course, become the focus of sustained political argument.
The public is troubled by how the media handle aspects of their indispensable political responsibility. Most Americans don't need lectures on the importance of freedom of communication. But the fact that the press is unfettered doesn't guarantee that it will adequately perform its constitutional role.
A review of recent surveys in The Public Perspective magazine makes it clear that dissatisfaction with the media's performance isn't confined to conservative activists, who have long charged journalists with letting their own liberal preferences shape their reporting.
Large majorities of the public say that the country's news media fail to give them the neutral, factual, unbiased reporting they need. A poll taken in January of last year for the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press asked: "In presenting the news dealing with political and social issues, do you think that news organizations deal fairly with all sides or do they tend to favor one side?"
Sixty-three percent said the latter. Similarly, in a March 1993 survey by the Los Angeles Times, two-thirds of those interviewed said it is true that "the news media give more coverage to stories that support their own points of view."
What's more, the college-educated, the segment of the public that follows press coverage most closely, are the most critical. Eighty percent of college graduates in the LA Times poll saw the media giving more play to stories that reflected journalists' preferences; 65 percent of high school graduates had this view.
Fifty-five percent of the college-trained agreed that "most network television news doesn't do a very good job of letting people know what is fact and what is opinion." Forty percent of the high- school trained had the same view.
There is also a widespread sense that much of the press is too inclined to nay-saying. The LA Times poll asked whether "you think the news media put too much emphasis on positive news, or too much emphasis on negative news, or do they strike about the right balance...." Only 3 percent saw journalists predisposed to sugar coating. Sixty-four percent thought they unduly stressed the negative, while 33 percent felt they struck a proper balance.
Near the outset of the March survey, before any other items raised specific issues of press performance, interviewers asked, "What is your biggest complaint about the news media?"
Without prompting, 28 percent said coverage is too sensational, 22 percent that it is biased, 15 percent that it distorts the truth, 11 percent that it is rude and intrusive, 10 percent that it is too negative, and 7 percent that it reflects journalists' own agendas. The source of the public's dissatisfaction is clear. Criticism of the press centers almost entirely on what is perceived as its failure to "just give us the facts."
An increasing body of research shows that the public's complaints have a substantial foundation. Professional norms have been shifting strikingly away from the "neutral" toward the "participant" model, in which journalists are supposed to play a more active and creative part in developing what is newsworthy.
Georgetown University political scientist Michael Robinson finds that "events are frequently conveyed by television news through an inferential structure that often injects a negativistic, contentious, or anti-institutional bias."
Research shows journalists becoming more homogeneous, not more diverse - disproportionately supportive of Democratic candidates for president and other key offices, and liberal in social values.
It is not surprising, then, that analysis done with the extensive database of Mead Data Central's NEXIS system found last fall's coverage far more positive toward Bill Clinton than toward George Bush.
The United States has plenty of room for publications that seek to advance particular values and points of view. But it also needs media that aspire to the difficult role of being neutral, objective purveyors of information, letting people make up their own minds.