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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

Have public attitudes toward the network news divisions changed in the last year?

By one measure, 2004 suggested the public may be questioning the authority it once found in network news. On Election Night 2004, the three commercial broadcast networks each lost millions of viewers compared to the number that tuned in four years earlier. The Fox broadcasting network and CNN each posted modest gains, while Fox News on cable tripled its viewership to top 8 million.

Did Election Night 2004 signal a further shift in public respect for the networks?

The first place to start looking might be in one of the most basic measures of attitudes, whether people believe most of what a news organization tells them.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has been asking the public about the “believability” of different news organizations for the past 19 years. And in that time, there has been a marked decline in the believability of network news. The number of people giving ABC, CBS or NBC news the highest mark for believability fell from roughly 32% in 1985 to 25% in 2002.

In 2004, the number fell again, to 22%.1

Television News Believability

Believe all or most
Believe almost nothing
Can’t Rate/Never Heard of Outlet
NBC News
ABC News
CBS News
Fox News

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey,” June 8, 2004.

Believability of Network News Outlets
Believe all or most of what organization says
Design Your Own Chart
Source: The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, ’’Pew Research Biennial News Consumption Survey,’’ June 8, 2004
Data does not exist for Fox News or MSNBC before 2000. Percentages based on those who could rate each.

That sense of declining trust now seems to apply to cable news as well. Two of the three cable networks saw their believability scores fall slightly. Only Fox News Channel saw an increase. One broadcast network, CBS, also saw a slight drop, from 26% to 24%.2

Interestingly, there are no meaningful differences between the believability of any of the networks, including the cable channels. The lone exception is CNN, which is perceived as somewhat more believable than most (about 8 percentage points higher), though it is now falling.

According to survey data gathered by the Pew Research Center, as “a consequence of…increasing partisanship, the most trusted news sources for Democrats, Republicans and Independents vary widely.”3 Indeed, people from each of those political affiliations ranked only three news organs – CNN, 60 Minutes and C-Span – as most believable.

But when the Project delved further into the Pew Research Center’s data on news consumption, we found that while partisan divisions exist between what outlets people find credible, similar divides to not exist with regard to news consumption. Republicans who respond that they distrust a news organization will actually watch it in the same proportions as those who trust it. The same is true for Democrats and Independents.

In other words, the idea that there are “Red” and “Blue” news media has been overstated. There is an exception to this, and that is the cable networks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, viewership of the Fox News Channel tends to be more heavily Republican.

Believability of Select News Sources*

Republicans Democrats Independents
Fox News 29% CNN 45% 60 Minutes 29%
CNN 26 60 Minutes 42 CNN 28
60 Minutes 25 C-Span 36 C-Span 26
Wall Street Journal 23 ABC News 34 U.S. News 26
C-Span 22 CBS News 34 NBC News 24
Local TV News 21 NPR 33 NewsHour 24

* Percent are those from each group who believe all or most of what the organization reports, based on those able to rate the organization
Source:The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, ’’Pew Research Biennial News Consumption Survey,’’ June 8, 2004
In addition to asking people to rate the “believability” of various new outlets, the Pew survey separately asks people whether they “trust what news organizations are saying.” Here, too, trust and use do not correlate. Republicans who distrust the news media are as likely – and often more likely – to be viewers of network news as those who are more trusting, a phenomenon that is also true of Democrats, Independents, conservatives, liberals and moderates.

There is another wrinkle to the partisanship question. People of all ideological stripes, according to Pew data, tend to see more bias in the press than they used to – a point worth noting given the long history of questions about the networks. Conservatives see a liberal bias. Liberals see the news media as establishment or conservative.

Bias in Campaign Coverage
1988, 1996, 2000, and 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press,
*qu: In the way they have been covering the presidential race so far, do you think that news

It would seem that the believability of a media organization connects to larger feelings about media in general, rather than specific things that a news organization does or doesn’t do. That may be because it is difficult for people answering a survey to recall specific incidents or facts that might influence their responses.

The big media imbroglio of 2004, the so-called “Memogate” incident at CBS News, deserves a closer look, then, in the context of examining public feelings toward network news.


On September 8, 2004, 60 Minutes Wednesday reported that CBS had obtained six Texas Air National Guard memorandums from the files of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian that indicated that George W. Bush, as a lieutenant, had failed to fulfill his Guard obligations.

According to the memoranda, Bush ignored orders to get a physical, and his National Guard superiors had been pressured to give him favorable evaluations. In the same edition of the news magazine, a former Texas House speaker, Ben Barnes, discussed his role in securing a place in the Guard for Bush, a position that many assert was meant to ensure that Bush would not be sent to Vietnam.

The authenticity of the memos would soon be in doubt, and that embarrassment would lead to an independent investigation at CBS News that is reverberating in 2005. But how the doubts about the memos came to light may be just as important a lesson about the new media culture as what happened inside CBS.

Examining a Time magazine reconstruction of events (in a September 27 article), and backlogs on the Web, it appears that the memos were already being discussed on the Web the day before the 60 Minutes Wednesday story aired.

At 3:30pm ET, the blogger Joshua Micah Marshall posted on his “Contrary to what I had originally understood, the Ben Barnes interview is running Wednesday evening. But, I’m told by several sources that the Barnes’ interview is only a relatively small part of the package 60 Minutes is running. There’s other stuff that CBS has – newly discovered, or at least newly-revealed, documents that shed light on Bush’s guard service or lack thereof.”4

The buzz about the documents set conservative bloggers on point. According to the Time account, by the next afternoon, “bloggers at, a conservative website, began anticipating the coverage with comments such as, ‘CBS should have to register as a Democrat [campaign organization].’ “5

Before the piece on Bush and the Guard had finished (a preview of the segment had already been broadcast by Rather as the lead item on the CBS Evening News at 6:30 p.m. EDT) one of Freerepublic’s “freepers” questioned the documents’ authenticity. By 9:16 p.m. PDT, an online thread had been constructed on the site to specifically discuss the purported National Guard memos.

The posting that would draw the most attention (and eventually lead to the discrediting of the documents), was posted by a freeper who went by the name “Buckhead.” He wrote:

“…every single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman.

“In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts.

“The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late 90’s. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn’t used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid 80’s used monospaced fonts.

I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old.”6

Bloggers went on to dissect the type of font used in the memo, the type of paper and notations that, according to the bloggers, did not jibe with military procedures at the time.

And it was not just in the blogosphere that the memos were seen as forgeries. The traditional press, particularly ABC News and The Washington Post, would eventually track down sources to confirm much of the skepticism of the bloggers. In time, Marian Carr Knox, who had been the typist for Lieutenant Colonel Killian (he died in 1984) would tell several news organizations that she had not typed the documents and that there were things in the memos that did not square with Air National Guard style.

On September 15, Rather interviewed Knox on 60 Minutes Wednesday. She again said that she had not typed the memos but that the information contained in the reports did reflect the thinking of her boss at the time. In a statement issued by CBS News the day the interview was to air, CBS News vowed to “redouble its efforts to continue reporting aggressively on all aspects of the story…”7 The release continued, “The CBS News Report was based on a preponderance of evidence: many interviews, both on- and off-camera, with individuals with direct and indirect knowledge of the situation, atmosphere and events of the period in question, as well as the procedures, character and thinking of Lt. Col. Killian, Lt. Bush’s squadron commander in the Guard, at the time.”8

In a section titled “Other Issues,” Major General Bobby Hodges was quoted as saying that “…the CBS News report ‘…reflected issues he and Col. Killian had discussed – namely Mr. Bush’s failure to appear for a physical, which military records released previously by the White House show, led to a suspension from flying.”9

The statement also outlined the process CBS News undertook to verify the memorandum before the story was broadcast. Four independent experts were used to examine the documents, though only two still stood by their certifications by the time of the September 15 release.

Both Rather and CBS News continued to stand by the authenticity of the documents for about another week. On September 20, both the anchor and the network publicly acknowledged that the memos raised too many questions. Rather said, “…I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically. I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers… We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.

“Please know that nothing is more important to us than people’s trust in our ability and our commitment to report fairly and truthfully.”10

In the wake of Rather’s apology from the anchor desk, CBS appointed Dick Thornburgh, former U.S. attorney general and former governor of Pennsylvania, commonly described as a moderate Republican, and Louis Boccardi, a former president of The Associated Press, to investigate the incident.

What is striking is the almost non-reaction of the general public to the incident. In a USA Today poll of its readers, more than half of those surveyed said that they felt the incident was an “honest mistake.” Even more (64%) did not believe that CBS should fire Rather over the forged documents.

On January 10, 2005, CBS News released a 224-report that outlined the findings of the Thornbugh-Boccardi investigation. The panel “concluded that producers failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the…piece. [The] panel…concluded that there was no sign of political or anti-Bush bias in the production of the story…”11

The panel stated that the cause of the fundamental reason behind “At the root of the reporting fiasco, the panel said, was a “myopic zeal” to be the first news organization to break new ground about Bush’s Guard service. That, the panel said, was critical in explaining why CBS News had produced a story that was not fair or accurate and did not meet the organization’s standards.12

“The combination of a new 60 Minutes Wednesday management team, great deference given to a highly respected producer and the network’s news anchor, competitive pressures and a zealous belief in the truth of the segment seem to have led many to disregard some of the fundamental journalistic principles.”13

Following public release of the report, CBS asked for the resignation of Betsy West, a senior vice president who supervised prime-time news programming; Josh Howard, executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday, and a senior producer, Mary Murphy, who was Howard’s deputy. Mary Mapes, producer for the National Guard segment, was fired. Dan Rather had previously announced he would be stepping down as network anchor and would remain as a correspondent for 60 Minutes.


1. “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey, June 8, 2004, Topline results, pp. 101-104

2. Percentages based only on those people who were able to rate the news organization.

3. “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey, June 8, 2004, pg. 44.

4., “Feel the Buzz,” Joshua Micah Marshall, September 7, 2004

5. Time magazine, “How to Knock Down a Story,” Joshua Macht, September 27, 2004

6. Reprinted from, “The ‘New’ CBS Bush Documents, Let’s do some investigating.”

7. Release, “Marion Carr Knox, Secretary of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian to Appear on ’60 Minutes’ Tonight in First Television Interview,” September 15, 2004

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. “Dan Rather Statement on Memos,” from the website

11. Peter Johnson, “CBS Fires 4 over Bush Guard Story,” USA Today, January 26, 2005.

12. Ibid.

13. Text quoted from the Report of the Independent Review Panel on the September 8, 2004 60 Minutes Wednesday Segment “For the Record,” Pg. 29