Americans say media less believable

With scandals besetting some of the nation's most respected media outlets, why would anyone trust what they read in newspapers and magazines or what they see on television news programs?

Many Americans don't. A new Gallup Poll, based on surveys taken last week, found that media credibility rests at its lowest point in decades. Just 44 percent of Americans now say they are confident that U.S. news outlets are presenting the news accurately and completely. That's down from 54 percent a year ago -- about the same as it had been for seven years.

In the latest poll, released yesterday, 55 percent of respondents said they either have "not very much" confidence or "none at all" in the media's fairness and accuracy.

Who can blame them, asked Bill Kovach, a former editor at the New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "As a citizen -- divorcing myself from a lifetime in journalism -- I think I have every reason to be skeptical."

The Gallup study was conducted from Sept. 13 through Sept. 15 -- several days after challenges were lodged against a 60 Minutes story about President Bush's military record, but before CBS apologized and retracted its report. (On Sept. 20, CBS acknowledged it could not be sure of the authenticity of documents it cited in reporting Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard.)

But the CBS fiasco, which has some critics calling for the firing of anchor Dan Rather, the story's on-air correspondent, follows major crises at USA Today and The New York Times, both of which occurred within the past 18 months. Top editors at those newspapers were forced out after star correspondents -- Jayson Blair at the Times, Jack Kelley at USA Today -- were found to have plagiarized or fabricated sections of many stories.

And those highly publicized failings have taken their toll on public faith in news organizations.

"That's not just Jayson Blair or Dan Rather," said Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center. "It's an erosion of trust in the media across the board."

"It's a very, very tough time," says Tom Johnson, former chairman of CNN and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. "All you have is trust. When you have something like this, it is shaken."

Johnson led CNN in 1998 when the news channel broadcast a highly promoted investigative report that alleged the U.S. military used sarin gas on Americans in Laos during the Vietnam War. It did not stand up to scrutiny.

"I will regret, all of my life, the mistakes that were made on my watch," Johnson said. "You can spend many, many years, building a reputation, but you sure can tear it down quickly."

CNN named noted first amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to lead an inquiry into what went wrong. Two producers and celebrated correspondent Peter Arnett ultimately lost their jobs. Johnson offered his own resignation, but his bosses refused to accept it. And, he said, he instituted safeguards that ensure CNN's journalism is more rigorously scrutinized today than ever.

Similar inquiries occurred at USA Today and the Times. At CBS, Leslie Moonves, head of the network, and Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, earlier this week appointed former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh -- who served under President George H.W. Bush -- and former Associated Press CEO Louis D. Boccardi to investigate how the 60 Minutes story was prepared and approved for broadcast. Boccardi served on a similar panel at the Times. At the Times, reforms ensued, including the appointment of a public editor, who writes a regular column critiquing the newspaper's performance.

Kovach questioned why CBS had not offered more detail about how its inquiry would proceed.

"CBS has taken the first step -- but it's only the first step," said Kovach, who also was on the three-person panel that helped document Kelley's myriad instances of journalistic corruption at USA Today."

He said that inquiries at both newspapers found cultures that allowed a single driven person to be rewarded -- repeatedly -- for dishonest behavior. Warning signs were inevitably overlooked, Kovach said.

Other incidents outside the newsroom, but involving media corporations, also have damaged the industry's credibility. Both Kovach and Johnson pointed to this year's circulation scandal at the Long Island-based Newsday, a Tribune Co. newspaper (The Sun is also owned by Tribune). Newsday executives appear to have wildly inflated circulation figures to keep advertising rates higher. Their discovery has cost the company tens of millions of dollars. Similar circulation discrepancies have been found at Hoy, a Tribune Spanish-language newspaper, and at the Chicago Sun-Times and the Dallas Morning News.

CBS News makes up a modest fraction of the $10.3 billion in gross profits that its parent company, the entertainment conglomerate Viacom, took in last year. Still, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and the company's corporate board are closely monitoring the fallout from the botched CBS story, spokeswoman Susan Duffy said.

Conservative critics have long targeted Rather and CBS, claiming they betray a liberal bent. An e-mail campaign has been launched to pressure local CBS stations to call for Rather's resignation or firing. In southeastern Virginia, a local talk radio station switched from CBS to ABC as a direct result of the scandal, according to the Associated Press.

But ratings appear to have held steady on the CBS Evening News, for which Rather is the anchor. During weekdays between Sept. 13 and Sept. 17, the newscasts drew between 5.1 million and 5.8 million viewers each night -- slightly above average.

The scandal may already be affecting the news judgment of the network's executives.

To make room for the Sept. 8 national guard story, 60 Minutes producers decided not to air a report that had taken months to research, according to Newsweek.

The story would have explored how the Bush administration was duped by forged documents when it claimed that Saddam Hussein tried to purchase materials from Niger to make weapons of mass destruction. That link was used to help justify the invasion of Iraq.

Last night, the network announced that the story would be postponed until after the November elections. "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election," CBS News said in a statement released last night.