January 28, 2002

Return to Normalcy?

Are You American or Not?

From the start, the question of patriotism and perspective in the press coverage was an issue. Television journalists sparred over whether to wear flag lapel pins. Networks jousted over who would have the most notable flag in their logo. At least three network news presidents made news for their remarks over the question of perspective. ABC News President David Westin apologized for seeming too detached from patriotism in remarks made at Columbia Journalism School. CNN President Walter Issacson made news for a memo in which he said he did not want his network to appear to be "simply reporting for their (the Taliban) vantage or perspective."

Most combative was Fox News President Roger Ailes, a former Republican political consultant. Ailes suggested that Fox is more patriotic than other news organizations, singling out CNN, against which his network competes directly for advertising revenue.

Ailes suggested CNN has generally been unfair to conservatives, and has bent over backwards to be fair to the enemies of the United States. "Suddenly, our competition has discovered 'fair and balanced,' but only when it's radical terrorism versus the United States," Ailes was quoted as saying in The New York Times, December 3.

At Fox, "We are not anti-the United States," Ailes said. "We just do not assume that America's wrong first."4

The study decided to find out to what extent the press culture was offering a mix of viewpoints on stories where the American point of view was an issue. This is a subset of all the stories studied. On many stories, such as those about clean up at ground zero, or the personal stories of victims and their families, the question of the propriety or political wisdom of the official American response was not at issue.

To measure viewpoint, the study examined all relevant stories and then tallied whether the statements and assertions in the story were entirely pro-official U.S. response (100%) or predominantly so (at least 74%), mixed (25% to 74%), predominantly anti-official U.S. response (less than 25%) or entirely anti-the official U.S. response.

Viewpoints in All Media
(relevant stories)
 
All Pro-U.S. 54% 39% 47% 49%
Mostly Pro-U.S. 17 13 3 13
Mixed 20 38 42 30
Mostly Dissenting 6 4 3 5
All Dissenting 2 6 4 3
Total 100 100 100 100

Overall, any suggestion that the media are by nature anti-Administration or anti-American or is somehow detached from being an American press is simply not borne out by the numbers. The press coverage has been demonstrably pro-Administration or pro U.S. policy in the viewpoints it has reflected.

Taking all the coverage combined 49% of the applicable stories contained only viewpoints that favored U.S. policy.

Another 13% contained predominantly pro-U.S. policy viewpoints.

The percentage of stories that might be perceived as largely providing "the other side," or dissenting from the Administration point of view, never exceeded 10%.

Still there has been a growing balance of viewpoints over time. In September, just 20% provided a mix of perspectives.

That began to change in November. The percent of stories with a mix of views nearly doubled to 38%.

One reason may well have been events. The bombing in Afghanistan was continuing but was not yet decisive, and only a week or so before appeared perhaps to have stalled. It was not clear whether the Taliban were really collapsing or regrouping. The issue of federalizing airport security works was under debate at the time also, and broke along highly partisan lines.

By December, as the U.S. military victory became more decisive, the lines of support had become clearer. Stories were either entirely pro-U.S. (47%), or provided a balance of views (42%). Interestingly, the medium makes a difference. Television is more decidedly pro-Administration (83% mostly or entirely in September, 62% in November, 74% in December).

Viewpoints in Newspapers
(relevant stories)
 
All Pro-U.S. 41% 23% 38% 35%
Mostly Pro-U.S. 19 18 2 15
Mixed 30 46 51 39
Mostly Dissenting 7 7 3 6
All Dissenting 3 6 7 4
Total 100 100 100 100

Print is more circumspect.

By December half of all relevant newspaper stories gave a mix of pro and dissenting views, a 21-percentage-point increase, and the highest of any medium by far, 20 points higher than broadcast.

Broadcast stories, by contrast, were twice as likely to be entirely pro-Administration as to offer a mix of perspectives.

Viewpoints on Television
(relevant stories)
 
All Pro-U.S. 68% 54% 59% 63%
Mostly Pro-U.S. 15 8 4 11
Mixed 10 30 31 19
Mostly Dissenting 5 1 4 4
All Dissenting 1 7 2 3
Total 100 100 100 100

Within television, moreover, the genre of show makes some difference. Across time, Talk Shows carried a greater percent of stories with mixed and dissenting views than morning or evening news, though they were still heavily pro-American.

Almost two-thirds of the Talk Show assertions were mostly or entirely pro-Administration in September, rising to better than three quarters in November, and sliding down to less than six-in-ten in December.

The views were even more one sided on morning television (82% mostly or entirely pro-Administration in September, 61% in November and 80% in December.)

And on the traditional evening newscasts, the balance fluctuated as the story changed. (93% mostly or entirely pro-U.S. in September, down to 45% in November, back to 83% in December).

 

Public survey work on the question has proved nuanced on the question of what Americans prefer. A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press study in November found that while 53 percent of people said they thought it more important that the government be safe than that the press have access, at the same time 73 percent thought it was more important for the press to tell all sides than to be pro-American.