By Shane D'Aprile - 10/21/10 12:58 AM EDT
A majority of likely voters across 10 key congressional districts say
the media have become more partisan in the past five years, according to
a new poll from The Hill.
The poll found that 51 percent of respondents think the press has turned either more partisan Republican or more partisan Democrat since 2005. Breaking that number down, 30 percent say the media are more biased in favor of Democrats, while 21 percent say the media are more biased in favor of Republicans.
Among those who believe there has been a shift, both men and women in all age groups detect an increased bias toward Democrats. Black and Hispanic voters, on the contrary, believed the press has shifted to the right.
Republicans are more apt than Democrats to see a shift; 46 percent of GOP supporters said the media has moved to the left, while 32 percent of Democrats saw a shift to the right.
More independents think the media has moved to the left than to the right, with 31 percent seeing a shift toward the Democrats, compared to 22 percent who say the shift has been in the other direction.
In Week 3 of The Hill’s four-week rolling survey, Penn Schoen Berland questioned likely voters in 10 toss-up districts held by Democrats who came into Congress with the 2006 wave. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 1.5 percent.
Perceptions about media bias come against the backdrop of an election in which the conservative base of the Republican Party is more motivated than the grass roots on the left. Tea Party-backed candidates have tailored campaign speeches and fundraising appeals to the idea that a left-leaning media is trying to stack the deck against their candidacies.
And, according to Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West, perceptions of the media are one of the major reasons for the proliferation of negative campaign ads this cycle. Thanks to the ever-growing distrust of the press, he argues, candidates are emboldened to make claims in political ads that they would not if the media were seen as impartial.
"It's pretty clear that perceptions of media bias have limited political accountability in this election cycle," said West, who says that as long as distrust of the media among voters is growing, so will the outlandish claims contained in some campaign spots.
"Part of what you're seeing is that fewer people trust the press to decide whether or not the claims in these ads are accurate," said West. "So candidates are less worried about being called out for them."
West offered a few examples of ads candidates would probably be "too scared" to make in previous cycles: In the Nevada Senate race, Republican candidate Sharron Angle had an ad that accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of supporting Viagra for convicted sex offenders; in the New York governor’s race, Republican nominee Carl Paladino made unsubstantiated claims that his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, had an extramarital affair.
"That half of voters essentially think journalists are not doing their jobs as impartial observers, I think, is a significant finding," West said.
Other spots that have made national headlines this cycle include an attack from Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who labeled his GOP opponent, Dan Webster, as "Taliban Dan" in a recent campaign ad. The ad featured images of Taliban fighters and women in burqas and used Bible quotes Webster cited in a speech he gave at a nonprofit Christian organization. But an examination of Webster’s full speech showed the excerpts were taken out of context.
And the latest ad from Kentucky Senate hopeful Jack Conway (D) has sparked a religious debate in that state. The ad refers to Republican Rand Paul’s membership in a secret society at Baylor University that mocked Christianity in satirical articles. Paul responded with his own ad that says he “keeps Christ in his heart” and accused Conway of bearing “false witness.”
In Arizona’s 5th district, Rep. Harry Mitchell (D) ran a spot attacking his GOP opponent for profiting from foreclosures, accusing David Schweikert of evicting a family on the verge of saving their home, "just to make a buck." The veracity of the spot has been called into question by some observers.
But Mitchell’s ad could prove effective. The poll found in that district, most voters get their political information from television.
And that echoes the overall findings about the importance of TV, the medium through which the vast majority of those attacks have been disseminated. Despite campaigns’ increased focus on social media and online advertising and fundraising efforts, The Hill’s poll shows why TV is still dominant.
Overall, it's far and away the main source of information. The poll found 46 percent of likely voters identify TV as their main source of political information; 22 percent said print media is their dominant source, and 15 percent said the Internet was.
There were some significant differences in response between districts, with TV being more dominant in some areas than others. In Mississippi's 1st district, 64 percent of likely voters said it was their main source of political information, while that number hovered between 40 and 50 percent in most other districts.
Television was the dominant source of political information for likely voters in every district but one, New Hampshire's 1st, where TV was tied with print at 32 percent.
Young voters turn largely to the Web for political information. Forty-five percent of likely voters age 18-34 identified the Internet as their main information source, while TV lagged in second place with just 27 percent. Only 13 percent of young voters chose print media.
It's in online appeals that pollster Mark Penn argues Democrats could seize an opportunity ahead of November.
"I think there's an under-the-radar strategy there aimed at getting out young voters," said Penn. "You see the president out there on college campuses trying to rally them. That's one of the biggest things they can do right now — try to close that turnout gap."