Introduction and Summary

Voters generally believe the media has been fair to both major presidential candidates, but more say the press has been fair to Al Gore than to George W. Bush. Fully 74% of voters say the vice president has gotten fair press treatment, while 65% say the same about Bush. Nearly six-in-ten voters believe that journalists often let their political preferences influence news coverage, and a plurality sees a pro-Gore tilt here as well. Twice as many voters say the media is pulling for a Gore victory compared to those who think the media is hoping for a Bush win.

As they have in the past, voters tend to view the media’s campaign coverage through a partisan prism. Just 48% of Republicans judge the coverage of Bush’s campaign as fair, while 43% view it as unfair. Democrats and independents, by contrast, overwhelmingly regard the coverage of both campaigns as fair. Three-quarters of Democrats — and the same number of independents — say the media has been fair to Bush. More than seven-in-ten Democrats, independents and Republicans say Gore has gotten fair treatment. Overall, more voters say the vice president is getting a fair shake from the press than said that about Bill Clinton in September 1996.

Over the past eight years, there has been an increase in the number of voters who say that reporters often allow their political preferences to shape news coverage. Fully 57% of voters hold that view now, compared to 49% in September 1992. Nearly nine-in-ten (89%) say that journalists at least sometimes let their political views affect coverage, while just 9% say this seldom or never occurs.

Nearly half of voters (47%) say most journalists are pulling for Gore, compared to just 23% who say most members of the media are hoping for a Bush victory. The political leanings of voters are also important on this issue: While two-thirds of Republicans believe the media is hoping for a Gore victory, just 36% of Democrats agree. Aside from the partisan divisions, those who follow campaign news very closely are more likely to say that the media wants Gore to win — 54% of those who track campaign developments very closely think most journalists are in the vice president’s camp, while 18% of this group say most journalists want Bush to win.

However, in the two previous elections the overall gap on this question was even wider — in September 1996, 59% of voters said most members of the media wanted Bill Clinton to win, while just 17% believed that journalists wanted Bob Dole to prevail. In 1992, 52% thought most reporters wanted Clinton to win; 17% said the media hoped for a victory by President Bush.

More See Bush Going Negative

The latest Pew Research Center survey, conducted Oct. 4-8 among 1,009 voters, also examined the electorate’s attitudes toward the conduct of the campaign and the ads being run by both candidates. Four-in-ten voters say that Bush has been too personally critical of Gore, while half believe he has not been overly critical. By contrast, 29% think the vice president has been too critical of Bush, while 61% disagree.

Interestingly, a plurality of Bush supporters (49%) say that Gore has not been excessively critical of their candidate, while 42% believe the vice president has been too negative. Nearly six-in-ten Gore supporters (57%) say the Texas governor has been too personally critical of Gore, while 34% say he has not.

About six-in-ten voters have viewed the ads for each campaign — 61% have seen Bush’s ads, while 57% have watched Gore’s. The regional disparity on this question underscores the political importance of the Midwest in the current campaign. Seven-in-ten voters in this region have seen ads for each of the candidates, the most among any section of the country. Asked which candidate had been more visible — in ads and news coverage — in the week prior to the survey, a plurality of respondents (42%) say they heard about both candidates equally, 30% mentioned Gore and 22% cited Bush.

Grading the Ads

Voters give the candidates comparable grades for their campaign ads. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) say Gore’s ads merit a grade of A or B, 36% say the same of Bush’s ads. Fully 64% of Democrats award Gore’s ads the highest grades, while 59% of Republicans give Bush’s spots A or B. Independents are slightly more impressed by Gore’s ads — one-third give Gore’s ads the highest marks, compared to 28% who award A or B to Bush’s ads.

Democrats have a more favorable view of Bush’s ads than Republicans have of Gore’s. More than one-third of GOP voters (36%) give Gore’s ads a failing grade; 17% of Democrats flunk Bush’s ads. Fully six-in-ten Democratic voters give Bush’s ads a grade of C or higher, while 44% of Republicans award a C or higher to Gore’s ads.