A new Harris Interactive online poll of 2,302 U.S. adults finds that 54 percent of Americans “tend not to trust” the media. Amongst Dems, a plurality (43 percent) say they tend to trust the media, but only 19 percent of Republicans say they do. This poll was conducted between January 15 and 22, 2008, about a month before The New York Times made unsubstantiated allegations about John McCain’s relationship with a female lobbyist, so the fallout from that article isn’t reflected in these poll numbers.  

The Harris poll is just the latest one showing that the public has a negative view of the media: 

† In its annual report on “The State Of The News Media,” Project for Excellence in Journalism found that during 2006: The number of Americans with a favorable view of the press “dropped markedly” from 59 percent in February to 48 percent in July – among the lowest scores in a decade. The number of Americans who believe “most or all of what news organizations tell them” also declined across the board, with roughly 25 percent believing most television outlets and fewer than 20 percent believing what they read in print. “CNN is not really more trusted than Fox, or ABC than NBC. The local paper is not viewed much differently than the New York Times.” And while Republicans “express less confidence than Democrats in the credibility of nearly every major news outlet … Democrats are beginning to doubt the believability of more news outlets, and their suspicion of bias is growing too.” 

†  A 2005 survey by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that between 1985 and 2004, the percentage of Americans said they “can believe most of what they read in their daily newspaper” plummeted from 84 percent to 54 percent; roughly equal numbers said the news media “stand up for America” and are “too critical of America” (42 percent and 40 percent, respectively); and 73 percent of Republicans said the press is biased, as compared to 53 percent of Dems.  

† A 2004 Gallup Poll found that in the aftermath of CBS News’ reporting on President George W. Bush’s National Guard service during Vietnam War that was based on forged documents, only 44 percent of Americans “express confidence in the media’s ability to report news stories accurately and fairly … a significant drop from one year ago, when 54 percent … expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the media.” Gallup notes that this result is “particularly striking” because the figure had fluctuated between 51 percent and 55 percent from 1997 to 2003. 

The public is likely to distrust and dislike journalists even more, after how The Scotsman treated an “off the record” remark made by Harvard professor and genocide expert Samantha Power made in a newspaper interview.  When her arguably hyperbolic language caused a dust-up on this side of The Pond, she thought it prudent to resign her unpaid role as a foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign so as not to throw the suddenly struggling campaign off further stride now that the candidate was in the media’s crosshairs . Explains Washington Post media critic-turned political pundit Howard Kurtz:  

Technically, any agreement to put comments off the record – meaning they can’t be reported – must be worked out in advance between journalist and source. But many reporters say it is common to grant such requests if they are made right after an inflammatory remark. 

Reached in Edinburgh, Mike Gilson, the Scotsman‘s editor, said he did not think the paper had been unfair to Power. “This was clearly an on-the-record interview that was taped,” he said. … 

The contretemps illustrates how a journalistic conversation that moves back and forth between different levels of attribution depends on winks, nods and, ultimately, some level of trust between the participants. A subject who goes off the record temporarily is supposed to indicate when his or her words can be quoted again. Some conduct interviews off the record or on background, meaning not for direct attribution, and then make a journalist read back comments for permission to quote. Subjects who dish off the record may be trying to establish a bond with their interviewer, or to float rumors or criticism without being held responsible. … 

Mark Feldstein, who teaches journalism at George Washington University, said the rules are “a little murky. I teach my students that it has to be said in advance, but this was so immediately after that I wouldn’t have run it. I think it was a low blow.” 

Political consultant-turned-analyst Susan Estrich adds that in the days before “Drudge Report,” politicos could say things to the foreign media not meant for American consumption, and no one would be the wiser: 

It used to be that you could have fun with interviews with the foreign press, knowing that nothing you said would make it back to any voters until long after the election was over, if ever. …  

Professor Power, who is a respected professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and was unpaid senior adviser to the Obama camp, will have more time for academic work in coming days.  

Her description of the New York senator as “a monster” was all over the place, beginning with the much-read Drudge Report, within hours, as were some of her other juicy quotes, which clearly had not been meant for an American audience. …Of course, Power really didn’t mean any of it. Or so she now is being forced to say, after the comments caused the explosion they did. Sen. Obama apologized. Power resigned from her unpaid position in the campaign.  

She will now be free to have lunch with Billy Shaheen, the unpaid Clinton adviser (and spouse of former New Hampshire Gov. and now Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen) who was forced to resign when he speculated about how the Republicans might use rumors that Obama had both used and sold drugs in a general election campaign. 

For the record, The Stiletto would not have taken advantage of a technicality and quoted Power just because she said “off the record” immediately after her comments instead of immediately before them. Clearly, she did not intend her words to be used for attribution.  

Stumping for her mother, Hillary, Chelsea Clinton is smart to avoid the media like the plague.   

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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