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Biased In Both Directions

(GETTY IMAGES/Chris Hondros)
Gallup has found, unsurprisingly, that most Americans (56 percent) believe the media is providing an inaccurate portrait of the situation in Iraq. Here's the fun part: 36 percent of those that question the coverage said it makes the situation appear to be better than it actually is, while 61 percent said it makes it appear worse that it actually is. In other words, people are sure that the media is hopelessly biased. They just can't agree on which way the bias runs.

These findings point to the challenges faced by large news organizations like CBS, which want to hold on to the wide audience they've traditionally attracted. A large portion of the audience, it seems, wants the network and its competitors to skew their coverage in one direction, while another large portion wants them to skew their coverage the other way. And they can't do both.

In the days before the Internet, when the "Evening News" was one of the few available news sources, the middle was a pretty safe place to be. Viewers from the left and right might occasionally be annoyed by the tenor of the coverage, but they gravitated to the evening newscasts anyway, since (a) they remained more or less in the middle and (b) viewers had little in the way of alternatives.

That has changed, for three primary reasons. The first is the rise of the alternatives – blogs, Web sites, and news outlets that cater to just about every ideological position out there. If you want your news more liberal or more conservative than you find on the "Evening News", it's easy to turn off CBS and find it. The second reason is the sustained assault on the media's credibility by partisans, from Spiro "nattering nabobs of negativism" Agnew through David Brock and Brent Bozell and George W. Bush. And the third reason is mistakes by the media such as "Rathergate," which have lessened the press' credibility and played into partisan media critics' hands.

The irony here is that the press doesn't really offer an accurate view of Iraq – but not for the reasons most of the doubters think. Gallup broke its results down by party identification, and, naturally, Republicans think the press is making things look worse than they actually are while Democrats believe the opposite. But ideology, in the end, isn't the problem. Talk to reporters who have spent time in Iraq and they'll tell you about obstacles to good reporting – the limitations in their ability to move around the country, for example – that provide the real impediments to bring an accurate picture to the folks back home. (CJR's oral history gets into this.)

Large news outlets are now scrambling to find a way to appease their audience by addressing concerns about bias – Public Eye can surely be characterized as one such effort. But they are in an extremely difficult position. Americans may simply be too ideologically diverse to stay with any one outlet in wide numbers, particularly when partisans from both sides are consistently attacking any outlet that tries to maintain the middle ground. The decision they now face is whether to continue deflecting those attacks or throw in the towel and throw in their lot with one side or the other.