Americans are increasingly cynical about a wide range of major institutions, with confidence in business suffering a particularly steep decline over the past four years, according to a new national survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Favorable ratings for corporations are 20 points lower than they were in a similar survey conducted in March of 2001. Just 45 percent say they have a favorable opinion of business corporations, while the same number express a negative view. Since the mid-1980s, solid majorities have consistently expressed positive views of corporations, but just 49 percent did so in July.

The decline is seen across most groups in the population, with favorable views falling about as much among conservatives as among liberals. In the current poll, just half (50 percent) of conservatives say they have a favorable view of business corporations.

Oil companies in particular have suffered a decline in their image, with just 20 percent now saying they have a favorable opinion of oil companies, down seven points since March. Fully 72 percent have an unfavorable view, with 34 percent holding very unfavorable views.

By contrast, slightly more people have a favorable than an unfavorable view of the news media (52 percent favorable, 42 percent unfavorable), up nine points from December 2004. Opinions about the news media have a partisan tilt, with 62 percent of Democrats viewing them favorably compared with just 44 percent of Republicans. Moderates (at 60 percent favorable) like the media more than do liberals (50 percent) or conservatives (44 percent).

Favorable ratings for the federal government in Washington have taken the hardest hit, falling from 59 percent last year to 45 percent currently. Even positive views of the military, while relatively very high, have slipped slightly (from 87 percent in March to 82 percent). Only two institutions are unscathed by public discontent: ratings for the Supreme Court and the news media were unchanged compared to previous surveys.

President Bush’s job approval rating is at 40 percent, just above its all-time low of 38 percent earlier this month, but favorable opinions of the president stand at their lowest point since he took office in 2001 (46 percent). Overall, just 18 percent say they have a ”very favorable” opinion of the president, down from 27 percent in early October of last year. By contrast, 29 percent say they have a ”very unfavorable” opinion of Bush, up from 20 percent a year ago.

Ratings for the Republican Party also have eroded in the past few months; more Americans now have a positive view of the Democratic Party than the Republican Party (49 percent vs. 42 percent). As many Americans hold an unfavorable as a favorable view of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist—embroiled in an insider trading scandal—today. In January 2003, the public viewed him favorably by more than two-to-one. And opinions of Rep. Tom DeLay are even more negative. Overall, 40 percent of Americans view DeLay unfavorably, while just 18 percent view him favorably.

Despite falling ratings for the federal government in general and Congress in particular, the military and the Supreme Court remain well regarded among a majority of the public. Roughly eight in ten (82 percent) have a favorable opinion of the military (with 44 percent very favorable), down slightly from March of this year but largely unchanged over the past eight years.

About six-in-ten (62 percent) view the Supreme Court favorably, slightly better than in June of this year but down significantly over the past decade. Despite criticism by conservative and religious groups, the Supreme Court is better regarded among Republicans (72 percent favorable) than Democrats (59 percent favorable), and is rated as highly by white evangelical Protestants as by other religious groups.

The survey also measured public interest in major news stories.

News about the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast, as well as the high price of gasoline these days, continue to capture high levels of public interest. Nearly seven-in-ten (69 percent) are following the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita very closely; there has been no significant drop in public attention to this story since early September when 70 percent were following news of the storm very closely just after Katrina hit.

Interest in rising gas prices also remains high, with 67 percent tracking the story very closely. This is not significantly different from earlier in October and early September when 65 percent and 71 percent, respectively, were following very closely.

Only about one in five Americans (19 percent) is following news about the constitutional referendum in Iraq. There is only modest attention to the recent earthquake in Pakistan, with 22 percent tracking this story very closely. And public attention to the outbreak of avian flu in Asia and Europe has been limited. About one-in-five (22 percent) say they are following this story.