MEDIA BRANDS: Despite rising scrutiny of biased reporting, public opinion of media hasn't shifted much

Hardly a week goes by when the issue of bias in the media doesn't come up in a very public way. Most recently, the LA Times was attacked for publishing stories about California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's alleged fondness for fondling women. The articles have cost the paper at least a thousand subscriptions and led to the kind of vociferous criticism it hadn't felt since it was sold to the Tribune Co., based on the assumption that the stories were a liberal paper's attempt to scuttle a Republican candidacy right before the election.

Hardly a week goes by when the issue of bias in the media doesn't come up in a very public way. Most recently, the LA Times was attacked for publishing stories about California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's alleged fondness for fondling women. The articles have cost the paper at least a thousand subscriptions and led to the kind of vociferous criticism it hadn't felt since it was sold to the Tribune Co., based on the assumption that the stories were a liberal paper's attempt to scuttle a Republican candidacy right before the election.

This is but one case in many where the issue of ideology has framed an examination of whether a media organization is covering a story fairly and accurately. It's also more proof that media ethics has become largely about that nagging question of whether reporters and editors are able to keep political prejudices out of their news coverage. There has been no shortage of attempts from both sides of the fray to answer this question. In book-length form, there have been tell-all anecdotal approaches (Bernard Goldberg's Bias), empirical investigations (Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?) and, not least, screeds (Ann Coulter's Slander). The question, moreover, is tossed about frequently on journalist weblogs, debated by professional organizations, and even taken up on editorial pages. But, if a recent poll is any measure of how the public feels, then all of this amounts to little more than navel-gazing because none of it has changed public sentiment one bit. Earlier this month, the Gallup Organization released the results of a poll that asked just over 1,000 American adults about the political predilections of the media. The findings were less than surprising. Forty-five percent said US journalists are too liberal, while only 14% said they're too conservative. What is surprising is that these numbers haven't changed over the past three years - a time frame marked by an intense public conversation about this issue, both within and outside the media community. It's more striking when you consider that these years saw the rise of Fox News Channel, the outlet most commonly implicated in this conversation and one that's rarely discussed but in ideological terms. What's more is that the recent survey comes at a time when the US press corps is under fire for giving the White House a free ride on its march to the invasion of Iraq, especially when it comes to the dodgy evidence presented as to the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps a more telling finding, and one that answers the contradiction between perception of the US public and reality of news coverage, is that among those who answered the Gallup poll, four in ten described themselves as conservative, twice the number who identified themselves as liberal. Perhaps it's time the media stopped worrying about its own ideology and began to try and figure out the rightward drift of the values of the public it serves. -matthew.creamer@prweek.com

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