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Media mea culpas don't defuse public discontent

In the struggle to be the best in a 24/7 news cycle, big lessons in objectivity.

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CBS's exhaustive self-investigation of the "60 Minutes" segment questioning George W. Bush's National Guard service has done little to satisfy some conservatives. The problem, they say: The report, which probed journalistic failures, didn't find any political bias. Instead it blamed "myopic zeal" fostered by competitive pressures.

Many liberals, meanwhile, remain unsatisfied with the mea culpas offered by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams. He has insisted that his support of the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" education policy was not swayed in any way by the $240,000 he was paid to promote it.

In these highly partisan times, the media, with all their foibles and strengths, continue to lose credibility with the public even as they strive to correct errors. From the thorough housecleaning at The New York Times after the Jayson Blair scandal to the ousting of prominent USA Today reporter Jack Kelley for writing deceptive stories, media outlets are quick to air their dirty laundry in an effort to regain respect. But the self-flagellation appears to have little effect on the public's eroding confidence.

According to studies by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 38 percent of Americans said they believed political reporting was biased in 1988. Last year, that number had jumped to 58 percent. Part of it is due to the changing nature of cable television. Twenty-four hour cycles leave little time for thoughtful analysis. And then there's what some pundits call the "Fox effect," in which partisan commentary fills the hours between straightforward news segments. Underlying these factors are the continuing commercial pressures that during the past 30 years have transformed once sober and public service-oriented news organizations into key network profit centers, compelled to ratchet up their ratings.

"Opinions about the press have been pretty negative for a pretty long time," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center in Washington. "These incidents are not revelatory for the public, they're confirmatory ... to ordinary Americans. It's pretty much what they expect, unfortunately."

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