October 21, 2003

President’s Criticism of Media Resonates, But Iraq Unease Grows

Rising Job Worries, Bush Economic Plan Doesn't Help

Summary of Findings

Many Americans agree with President Bush that news reports from Iraq are making the situation there seem worse than it really is, but that has not stemmed rising public uneasiness over the U.S. military presence in Iraq. By contrast, the trend in economic attitudes presents a much less mixed ­ and much more negative ­ message for the White House.

Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say that jobs are hard to find in their communities, up from 59% in June 2002 and 44% a year earlier. Moreover, a 43% plurality believes Bush’s economic policies are making the economy worse, compared with 31% who say they are not having much an effect and just 18% who feel his policies are improving the economy. Even Republicans do not give the president’s economic policies a ringing endorsement. Just four-in-ten Republicans think those policies are having a positive impact, while the same number (40%) say they are not having much of an effect.

Pessimism about the job market has increased in most demographic groups, but Easterners, city residents and suburbanites are notably more negative than last year. And President Bush’s overall approval rating, which now stands at 50% is now even more correlated with assessments of the local job market. One piece of positive news for the administration is that just 16% of the public is paying very close attention to reports that a White House official may have leaked classified information about a CIA agent.

The latest Pew Research Center national survey, conducted Oct. 15-19 among 1,515 adults, finds that nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) believe the news media is painting too bleak a picture of the situation in Iraq, while 36% say media reports are fairly accurate and 14% say news organizations are showing the situation there to be better than it really is.

But even as Bush’s complaints about the media “filter” of news from Iraq ring true with many Americans, an increasing number believe U.S. forces in the country should be withdrawn as soon as possible ­ 39% say that now, compared with 32% in late September. A 58% majority wants U.S. troops to remain in Iraq until a stable government is established, down from 64% last month.

A solid majority of Democrats (56%) now want the troops to be brought home as soon as possible, a 12-point increase in the past month. Republicans remain overwhelmingly opposed to a withdrawal (by 78% to 20%). Independents also oppose such a move, but 40% favor a troop withdrawal now, up from 33% last month.

Public support for the decision to go to war is slipping as well. Six-in-ten Americans (60%) now say it was the right decision to go to war in Iraq, down from 63% in September, 67% in July and 74% in April, shortly after the fall of Baghdad. However, the public’s assessments of the military situation, which turned much more negative in the summer, have not changed much in the past few months. Fewer than one-in-five (16%) believe things in Iraq are going very well, with a plurality (44%) saying things are going fairly well; both numbers are largely unchanged from September (15% very well, 47% fairly well). In April, 61% of Americans said the military effort was going very well.

Republicans generally are more critical of the news media than are Democrats, and this is particularly the case in opinions of coverage of Iraq. A solid majority of Republicans (55%) believe news reports are painting an excessively negative picture of the situation in Iraq; only about half as many Democrats (28%) and a third of independents (34%) agree.

Similarly, 55% of those who primarily rely on the Fox News Channel ­ a group that includes significantly more Republicans than audiences for other outlets ­ also fault the media for presenting too negative a picture of the situation in Iraq. Other news audiences have more mixed assessments of Iraq coverage: a plurality of CNN viewers (41%) think news reports from Iraq are generally accurate while 32% say those reports are making the situation seem worse than it really is.

Those who criticize news coverage of Iraq also are somewhat more likely than others to see the situation there in a positive light. Even so, a plurality of press critics (46%) say things in Iraq are going only fairly well; about the same percentage of those who think coverage has been fairly accurate agree (47%). Perceptions of media coverage of Iraq also are correlated with opinions on whether the U.S. made the right decision to go to war. Seven-in-ten (71%) of those who criticize news coverage of Iraq feel it was the right decision, compared with 58% of those who feel coverage has been generally accurate.

The poll also finds widespread criticism of media reporting on the Democratic presidential nomination race: just 30% give the coverage an excellent or good rating, while 54% say news organizations are doing only a fair or poor job. Four years ago, significantly more people (42%) rated reporting of the nomination race as good or excellent. Majorities in both parties, as well as independents, have a negative view of the nomination coverage, although more Democrats than Republicans think there is too little coverage of the race (24% vs. 11%).

News Interest: Iraq, Economy

About four-in-ten Americans (38%) say they paid very close attention to news on the current situation in Iraq, down sharply from September (50%) but still more than any other news story this month. About a third (32%) tracked news on the economy very closely.

Despite massive media attention of the California recall election, it did not attract much attention outside of the West. Roughly a third (32%) of those in the West followed the election there very closely, followed by 22% in the East, 18% in the South and just 12% in the Midwest.

The reports that a White House official may have leaked classified information about a CIA agent also did not stir much national interest. Just 16% followed this story very closely; similar percentages of Democrats and Republicans tracked this story very closely (18%, 17% respectively).

News on sexual assault allegations against basketball star Kobe Bryant also attracted fairly little interest: 14% followed the story very closely, about the same as in September (17%). Twice as many African Americans as whites followed the Bryant story very closely (24% vs. 12%).

Roughly one-in-ten Americans (12%) closely followed news of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, which is down somewhat from September (17%). Interest in the race is much higher among Democrats (19%) than among independents and Republicans (10%, 8% respectively).