February 6, 1998

Popular Policies and Unpopular Press Lift Clinton Ratings

Other Important Findings and Analyses

State of the Nation: Bright

Surpassing even Clinton’s hike in approval ratings in the past two weeks is a 13% point jump in satisfaction with the way “things are going in this country today.” Fully 59% of Americans now say they are satisfied with the country — the highest number since the end of the Gulf War and more than 20% points higher than a year ago.

This substantial shift in opinion came as one-quarter of the public revised its thinking about the country just since mid-January. Most of these switchers went from being dissatisfied or unsure to satisfied (19%), with a smaller group switching from being satisfied or unsure to dissatisfied (6%). Those who express new satisfaction with the country come disproportionately from the President’s own party: 60% are Democrats; 34% are Republicans.

Today, nearly three-in-four Democrats (72%) say they are satisfied with how things are going, up 23% points from just two weeks ago. The group of newly satisfied Americans also includes substantially more women (61%) than men (39%).

The Media and Monica

Americans have not withheld judgement about the news media with regard to its coverage of the scandal. While the public is divided over how good a job the media is doing covering the allegations against Clinton overall, they are unified in their criticism of the press for failing to check the facts in this story and for being biased against the President.

Questions about press practices in covering the scandal elicit strong criticism from much of the public. Two-thirds of the public (65%) say the press has done only a fair or poor job carefully checking facts before reporting stories. Nearly as many (60%) say the press has done a fair or poor job being objective about whether or not Clinton is guilty of any of the allegations. Majorities also give the press low marks for providing the right amount of coverage about the story (55% fair/poor) and providing the public with the information needed to make up its own mind about the allegations (52% fair/poor). While many Republicans are critical of the media, especially when it comes to checking the facts, Democrats are more critical in each regard.

Overall, only one-in-10 Americans give the media “excellent” marks for its coverage of the allegations; 36% say the coverage has been “good.” One-third (32%) say the coverage has been “only fair,” and 19% judge it “poor.” Evaluations of the press in this regard are extremely partisan. Clinton supporters, Democrats and older Americans are among the most critical of the job the media has done. Republicans, on balance, think the media has done a good job covering the story (61% excellent/good vs. 35% fair/poor).

Among those who are critical of the way the media has covered the scandal, the No. 1 complaint is its failure to verify the facts and its airing of unsubstantiated rumors and accusations. One-third of those critical of the media volunteered this response when asked in an open-ended format why they have a negative view of press coverage of the allegations. The next most common complaint was that the media is devoting too much time to the story and sensationalizing it. Other critiques included biased reporting, intrusiveness and excessive coverage.

Those who give the media high marks for its coverage of the scandal cite its persistence in uncovering the facts and the thoroughness of the coverage as reasons for their more positive evaluations. Fifteen percent of those who think the media is doing an excellent or good job say the press is uncovering and reporting the facts. Another 13% praise the media for continuing to dig for additional information. A similar proportion (13%) cite the press’s constant coverage of the scandal. Other reasons given were keeping on top of the story, keeping the public informed, and being fair and impartial.

News Interest High

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has definitely dominated the consciousness of the American public in recent weeks. When asked to recall the first recent news story that came to mind, fully 75% of Americans named the current Clinton scandal. Just two weeks ago, before the Lewinsky story broke, the same sample of Americans mentioned a host of news stories led by the situation in Iraq, winter weather and crime.

When asked specifically how closely they have been following the allegations against the President, one-third of the public (34%) say they have followed the story very closely, another 42% fairly closely. This is much higher than the average 17% who have very closely followed most Washington scandal stories in the past. Only the congressional check bouncing scandal of 1992 garnered more public attention — 36% followed that story very closely.

In spite of the many criticisms of press coverage, a strong majority of Americans (68%) do believe that it is the job of the news media to provide information about whether or not the President lied under oath or encouraged others to lie about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Only 44% believe it is the job of the media to provide the public with information about whether or not Clinton has engaged in extra-marital affairs. A narrow majority (52%) say it is not their job.

While the public is interested in the story, it clearly believes that the media has gone overboard in its coverage. More than half (55%) fault the media for the quantity of coverage the story has received, and eight-in-10 say there has been too much discussion by commentators and analysts.

Separating Fact from Fiction

The public is relatively discerning in terms of sorting out facts from accusations in this unfolding story. Nearly eight-in-10 Americans (78%) consider it a proven fact that the President personally knew Monica Lewinsky. Six-in-10 (61%) say it is a fact that Clinton recently admitted having an affair with Gennifer Flowers. And half accept as fact that there are indeed tapes of Monica Lewinsky talking with Linda Tripp about her relationship with the President (49%). Very few Americans think the two central allegations against Clinton — that he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and that he encouraged her to lie under oath about the affair — have been proven true. More that eight-in-10 (82% and 85%, respectively) view these as unproven accusations.

The public is skeptical about several other details of the case, which have been reported by major news organizations. Six-in-10 (59%) say reports that Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky gifts are merely accusations; 70% say the same about the existence of tape recordings of Clinton’s voice on Monica Lewinsky’s answering machine. Nearly eight-in-10 consider accounts of an eyewitness to encounters between the President and Monica Lewinsky to be accusation rather than fact (78%).

Those who believe that the press has not done a good job checking the facts on this story are particularly skeptical about the veracity of many of these reported details.

Republicans and Clinton detractors are much more likely than Democrats and Clinton supporters to view many of these details as proven facts. The biggest partisan gap can be seen on the issue of whether or not Clinton had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky; 23% of Republicans say this is a fact; just 6% of Democrats agree.

Views about the future of the investigation also have a partisan flavor. When asked what would be best for the nation — that the investigation continue or the matter be dropped altogether — 64% of Republicans say it would be best to continue the investigation, only 24% of Democrats agree. Overall, the public supports dropping the matter by a margin of 55% to 43%.

Press Criticisms All Too Familiar

Complaints about coverage of this story reinforce the public’s already critical view of press practices, and they have added to public wariness about the media’s accuracy and its watchdog role.

Supporters of a watchdog press outweighed critics by well more than two-to-one for nearly a decade between 1985 and 1994. Today, a much narrower 55% majority believes that press criticism “keeps political leaders from doing things that should not be done.” That number held steady over the past year, but the number of people saying that press criticism “keeps political leaders from doing their jobs” swelled seven percentage points to 39% as fewer people are undecided about the practice. Most of these new press critics are Democrats, who traditionally have been more sympathetic to the media.

Today, 63% of the public complain that press accounts are “often inaccurate,” a 7% point jump since 1997 and by far the worst rating the press has received on this in a decade. Two-thirds of the public (66%) today complain that coverage of the personal and ethical behavior of political leaders is “excessive;” the same number (65%) felt that way a year earlier. Similarly, 65% of the public say the press “gets in the way of society solving its problems;” 63% lodged this criticism just a week before the story of Clinton’s alleged infidelity broke.

But Still Liked

But just as many Americans dislike Bill Clinton personally yet approve of his policies, the public continues to value the press in spite of its perceived flaws. Overall, Americans hold decidedly favorable views of the network news media, major cable news networks and the major national news papers as well as their local media.

Three-quarters of the public (76%) has a very or mostly favorable view of television network news; 71% hold favorable views of cable news networks; and 71% of those who can rate nationally influential newspapers say the same of them. Criticism of press practices has driven down the number of people who hold very favorable views of the media in recent years, however. In this poll, only cable television news got such high approval from as many as one-in-four Americans with 26%.