When historians look back on the Bush years, they will likely note that it marked the rebirth of a partisan press in the United States. The phrase "partisan press" calls forth images of nineteenth-century printers settling differences by beating each other with canes. But a partisan press that is fair and accurate yet honest in telling the audience what journalists believe and what their organizations stand for would be a great improvement over the pose of neutrality assumed by the profession today.
The trend of opinion creeping into the news pages in terms of biased wording in copy and thinly disguised advocacy journalism masquerading as "news analysis" had been going on before George W. Bush took office, but it has accelerated under his watch and is one of the unintended consequences of his divisive presidency and his mastery of press relations. Bush's approval ratings as I write this article are hovering in the thirties, so the last part of that sentence requires some explanation. Bad news, and especially bad war news, trumps good press tactics, and Bush finally fell victim to public impatience with the war coupled with something every politician's image eventually suffers from in our microwave, instant-messaging, channel-surfing culture - boredom. Nevertheless, for more than four years Bush stymied reporters with his unparalleled message discipline, airtight control of leaks from his inner circle, and his indifference to criticism of his methods, which can be summed up in a quote from the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin: "He doesn't fear the press."1
But he certainly frustrated the press. Columnist Richard Reeves, in Bush's first term, bemoaned the fact that the press had not "laid a glove on the 'war president." Out of their frustration, the press turned on itself, culminating in the remarkable reaction to Bush's March 6, 2003, press conference in which he made the case for war with Iraq. A number of reporters criticized their own performance. Terry Moran of ABC called the White House press corps "zombies" for not challenging Bush more effectively,3 and American Journalism Review used it to illustrate a cover story examining whether the press was too soft on Bush.4
Of course Bush partisans think just the opposite, and they have evidence to support it. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of bias against the president was the admission by Newsweek's Evan Thomas that most of the press corps wanted John Kerry to win in 2004 and that it was worth ten points to his campaign.5
My point is not to make yet another examination of the tired debate over whether the press has a liberal bias. For the record, I think the plethora of surveys showing journalists are liberal is accurate, and their political sympathies do affect coverage. But guess what? It does not matter what journalism professors or professional journalists think. The audience thinks that the press is biased, and the audience is the group that matters if news organizations want to survive in the twenty-first century.
The State of the News Media 2006 report done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that almost 75 percent of Americans believed the press was "slanted," and about the same number believed the press was more concerned with attracting an audience than with serving the public.6 What should be even more eye-opening for the profession is pairing that data with the Gallup survey of confidence in American institutions that showed the military had the highest rating in our society at almost 75 percent, and that the military, the police, and organized religion all ranked higher than newspapers and television, which were both rated at 28 percent, down from close to 40 percent in 2000.7
This difference shows a terrible disconnect between an audience that trusts the military and a profession that gives prestige and awards for investigations over scandals such as Abu Ghraib. Again, we can debate whether some of the Abu Ghraib coverage was biased, but that argument is academic in the worst sense of the term to a public that views the story as an aberration and not typical of the American military. …