Stenographers to Power
by John Nichols
The Nation, November 23, 2004
Common Dreams NewsCenter www.commondreams.org
The best question asked in the aftermath
of the 2004 US election came from a British newspaper, The Daily
Mirror, which inquired over a picture of George W. Bush, "How
can 59,054,087 be so dumb?
Now, another British newspaper has answered
the question. A new marketing campaign for The Weekly Guardian,
one of the most respected publications in the world, features
images of a dancing Bush and notes that, "Many US citizens
think the world backed the war in Iraq. Maybe it's the papers
The weekly compendium of articles and
analyses of global affairs from Britain's liberal Guardian newspaper
has long been regarded as an antidote to government controlled,
spun and inept local media. Nelson Mandela, when he was held in
South Africa's Pollsmor Prison, referred to the Weekly Guardian
as a "window on the wider world."
But is it really appropriate to compare
the United States in 2004 with a warped media market like South
Africa during apartheid days?
Actually, the comparison may be a bit
unfair to South African media in the apartheid era--when many
courageous journalists struggled to speak truth to power.
No serious observer of the current circumstance
in the United States would suggest that our major media serves
the cause of democracy. Years of consolidation and bottom-line
pressures have forced even once responsible media to allow entertainment
and commercial values to supersede civic and democratic values
when making news decisions. And the determination to color within
the lines of official spin is such that even the supposed pinnacles
of the profession--the New York Times, the Washington Post and
CBS News' 60 Minutes--have been forced to acknowledge that they
got the story of the rush to war with Iraq wrong.
There can be apologies. But there cannot
be excuses because, of course, media in the rest of the world
got that story right.
And there are consequences when major
media blows big stories. As the Weekly Guardian's new marketing
campaign suggests, a lot of Americans voted for George W. Bush
on November 2 on the basis of wrong assumptions.
According to a survey conducted during
the fall campaign season by the Program on International Policy
Attitudes--a joint initiative of the Center on Policy Attitudes
and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University
of Maryland School of Public Affairs--a lot of what Americans
know is wrong.
Despite the fact that surveys by the
Gallup organization and other polling firms have repeatedly confirmed
that the vast majority of citizens of other countries opposed
the war in Iraq, the PIPA survey found that only 31 percent of
Bush supporters recognized that the majority of people in the
world opposed the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
Amazingly, according to the PIPA poll,
57 percent of Bush supporters assumed that the majority of people
in the world would favor Bush's reelection, while only 33 percent
assumed that global views regarding Bush were evenly divided.
Only 9 percent of Bush backers correctly assumed that Kerry was
the world's choice.
That wasn't the end of the misperception.
"Even after the final report of
Charles Duelfer to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant
WMD program, 72 percent of Bush supporters continue to believe
that Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major program for developing
them (25 percent)," explained the summary of PIPA's polling.
"Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq
had actual WMD and 57 percent also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer
concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program."
"Similarly," the pollsters
found, "75 percent of Bush supporters continue to believe
that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63
percent believe that clear evidence of this support has been found.
Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the
conclusion of most experts, and 55 percent assume, incorrectly,
that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission."
PIPA analysts suggest that the "tendency
of Bush supporters to ignore dissonant information" offers
some explanation for these numbers. And there is something to
that. After all, Kerry backers displayed a far sounder sense of
reality in PIPA surveys.
But unless we want to assume that close
to 60 million Americans look at the world only through Bush-colored
glasses, there has to be some acceptance of the fact that good
citizens who consume American media come away with dramatic misconceptions
about the most vital issues of the day.
Sure, Fox warps facts intentionally.
But what about CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, USA Today, the New York Times
and the Washington Post, as well as most local media across the
country? They may strive to be more accurate than Fox or talk-radio
personalities such as Rush Limbaugh. But they still fed the American
people an inaccurate picture when they allowed the Bush team to
peddle lies about Iraq and other issues without aggressively and
consistently challenging those misstatements of fact.
America has many great journalists. And
there are still good newspapers, magazines and broadcast programs.
But, taken as a whole, US media--with its obsessive focus on John
Kerry's Vietnam record, its neglect of fundamental economic and
environmental issues and its stenographic repetition of even the
most absurd claims by the president and vice president--warped
the debate in 2004.
Some of those 59,054,087 Bush voters
may have been dumb.
But a far better explanation for the
election result is summed up by the Weekly Guardian's observation
that, "Maybe it's the papers they're reading."
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington
correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in
the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently
the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital