What a Difference a Poll Makes

I’ve been fascinated and embarrassingly sidetracked by the media’s recent change in tone. I think the slide for the administration’s public image began when Kanye West’s unscripted exclamation during an NBC fundraiser that “George Bush doesn't care about black people! Next came the string of angry editorials and opinions from conservatives over Bush’s nomination of Miers, while most Democrats preferred to note, without any hint of embarrassment, that they had no opinion on her because they hadn’t thought to research her as a likely pick. Add in a sprinkling of reports over alleged Republican ethical questions, and you have a press that smells a story.

The truth is that the press always writes its stories in the context of polls, and as much as politicians try to dismiss them, they tend to collectively reflect the public’s mood. The dam gave way on Wednesday night, when NBC Nightly News (with Tom Brokaw’s imitator) led the newscast with a story covering the flagging Miers nomination, followed by Tim Russert summarizing a dismal poll for the administration. While all of the major indicators were down, the most striking feature was when Russert explained that “only 2 percent -- 2 percent! -- of African-Americans approve of George Bush's handling of the presidency -- the lowest we have ever seen in that particular measure.” Wow. Even given some serious misgivings about the accuracy of that particular number, it’s been well known the Bush has never enjoyed strong support with African Americans, but with all of the administration's poll numbers lower, the little problems are starting to add up, at least on TV.

I think that the release of this recent NBC News/WSJ poll was the crest of coverage. It's been followed by a wave of negative stories in all mediums. Criticism of President Bush has been growing louder from many corners of the blogsophere, but now the general public is getting a bigger dose. Friday, stories in the papers and on television openly reported on the White House’s tight scripting of Bush’s teleconference with members of the U.S. military in Iraq. Try crying bias when the Associated Press mocks the event as a "conversation," noting that all participants were coached. As much as politicians claim that they don't attention to polls, they play a vital role in framing reporters' perception of the day's political events, as we discover every election year. Dan Froomkin also pointed to second reason why mainstream coverage became more critical - evidence of the administration's lack of candor that could be shown on television. Take it away, Dan:

White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeatedly insisted that the troops participating in a videoconference from Iraq with President Bush yesterday morning hadn't been coached. But the satellite feed of painstaking rehearsals led by a senior Pentagon official said otherwise. And as a result, television journalists for once had a field day exposing the sleight of hand to which they are more often accessories.

The event, along with the strugglin Miers nomination, lead to an astoundingly contentious press briefing at the White House, with Scott McClellan snapping at John Roberts (of CBS), and the press in general. Between a clear indication of dissatisfaction from the American public, and a new attitude of scrutiny from American media, look for the news to get more and more entertaining, though not at all more encouraging.


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