By Everett Carll Ladd. Everett Carll Ladd is professor of political science the Roper Center .
The Christian Science Monitor
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. …