Subject THE REAL POLLS Written 851 am Feb 19, 1991 by peacenet in cdpmideast.media Public

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Subject: THE REAL POLLS ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- Written 8:51 am Feb 19, 1991 by peacenet in cdp:mideast.media Public Misinformed! New Opinion Survey This important public opinion survey on Gulf war attitudes in the United States was undertaken by Michael Morgan and colleages at the Department of Communication, University of Massachusetts/Amherst. Here are a couple of quotes: Despite the months of television coverage devoted to this story, most people, we found, were alarmingly ill informed. if the news media had done a better job in informing people, would there be less support for the war? Our study indicates that the answer to this question is yes. >From: michael.morgan@saturn.ucc.umass.edu THE GULF WAR: A STUDY OF THE MEDIA, PUBLIC OPINION & PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE by Sut Jhally, Justin Lewis, & Michael Morgan INTRODUCTION There is only one serious or credible way to evaluate the performance of the news media, and that is to assess its role as an information system. If the news media does its job well, the public will be well informed. A poorly informed citizenry, in turn, reflects badly upon the ability of the news media to communicate the pertinent facts. Despite the rather self-congratulatory findings of recent polls, you do not judge TV news by asking people whether they like what they are watching. You judge it by asking them what they know. This is not an idle question: it goes to the very core of a democratic system, since the quality of our democratic decisions depends upon the quality of the information on which those decisions are based. We are, during wartime, particularly dependent upon the news media to inform us - not only because of the gravity of the event, but because most of us have no alternative sources of information. In the United States, the burden falls mainly upon television, which is the place where most of us get our news. This study was carried out, accordingly, to see just how well we have been informed about recent events in the Persian Gulf. Like other surveys, our aim was to investigate public attitudes about the war. Where this study differs from any other is that it also looks at the knowledge and understanding that underlies these opinions. There is more at stake here than the success or failure of ABC or CNN: the length and ferocity of this war will depend largely upon the measure of public support for it. It is vital, in a democracy, that the public are able to base their judgments on a clear understanding of the issues involved. Our study is based upon telephone interviews carried out, between February 2nd to February 4th, 1991, with 250 randomly selected individuals living in the Metropolitan Denver area. The findings we present here have been tested for standard measurements of statistical significance, and the relationships we explore have been isolated after running controls for other explanatory variables. THE UNTOLD STORY Our survey, like most others, shows strong public support (84% of our respondents) for President Bush's decision to use military force against Iraq. This support, as other surveys have shown, was stronger amongst men, white people and the young - although not, as some have tried to suggest, amongst people with immediate family serving in the Gulf. Most people (over two- thirds) described their opinion on this subject as strongly held, and a majority of our sample (58%) were prepared to pay higher taxes to pay for the war. We would expect, or at least hope, that such firm views on a politically contentious issue to be based on a knowledge of the pertinent facts. In this case, we discovered, it is not. We asked our respondents a number of questions about events in the Gulf, including the recent history of US foreign policy in the region and basic facts about the Middle East. Despite the months of television coverage devoted to this story, most people, we found, were alarmingly ill informed. The most striking gaps in people's knowledge involved information that might reflect badly upon the Administration's policy. The Administration's failure to discourage Iraq from attacking Kuwait, for example, is now well documented. At the very least, the Administration's subsequent aggressive posture towards Iraq reflected a shift, rather than a consistency, of resolve. The overwhelming majority of our respondents were not only unaware of the Adminstration's initial attitude of appeasement, they assumed a consistency in policy that was entirely fictitious. We asked people how the US State Department responded, in July 1990 (before the invasion), when Saddam Hussein indicated he may use force against Kuwait. Only 13% responded correctly (that the US indicated it would take no action), while 74% said the US threatened to impose sanctions, and as many as 65% said the Administration vowed to support Kuwait with the use of force. This amounts to a quite extraordinary rewriting of history in the collective consciousness. There is no doubt that the Bush Administration is the beneficiary of this profound misunderstanding. It is, after all, much easier to strongly support the Administration's decision to go to war if you think the President has been consistent throughout. Critics of the war policy say that it is hypocritical for the US to react so violently to one occupation in the Middle East, while ignoring or supporting others in the region. In terms of public support for the war, this point is critical, since a majority of our respondents (53%) stated that the US should intervene with military force to restore the sovereignty of any illegally occupied country (compared with only 18% who supported intervention to protect oil supplies). What this suggests is that most people are unaware of other occupations in the Middle East - or anywhere else. Such an awareness would clearly undercut the moral cornerstone of the current war policy. This was indeed the case. Less than a third of respondents (31%) were aware that Israel was occupying land in the Middle East, and only 3% were aware of Syria's occupation of Lebanon. While this basic lack of knowledge about an area that has commanded the world's attention (or so we thought) in recent years would be worrying enough without the Gulf war, current events make it positively alarming. The plight of Kuwait is now common knowledge, and yet only 15% were able to identify the Palestinian protest against occupation, the Intifada. Moreover, only 14% were aware that the United States were part of the tiny minority in the UN to vote against seeking a political settlement to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. This limited understanding, once again, makes it much easier for the President to appear morally consistent, and to invoke international law as a basis for the attack on Iraq and occupied Kuwait. The war policy is also justified by the notion that Saddam Hussein is a madman who must be stopped. While we cannot comment on Hussein's inclinations towards megalomania, it is worth noting that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was motivated, at least in part, by an unremarkable economic rationale. One of the most well documented reasons for the Iraqi invasion was Kuwait's insistence on lowering oil prices, a policy that was severely straining Iraq's economy: yet only 2% of our sample were able to identify this as a reason for Hussein's action. While knowledge of this recent history would not, for most people, justify the invasion, it does make it more difficult to portray Hussein as a power hungry lunatic with a relentless, unprovoked lust for power. The failure to understand this history, on the other hand, makes the Administration's attempt to portray Hussein as the most evil leader since Hitler (as opposed to, say, Pol Pot, Pinochet or Assad, who might also have a claim to this infamous distinction) seem much more straightforward. While most respondents had difficulty with questions about the Middle East or US foreign policy, there were a few areas that people were more confident about. Most of our sample (81%) knew the name of the missile used to shoot down the Iraqi Scuds (the Patriot). Most people (80%) were also aware that Hussein had used chemical weapons against Iran and/or members of his own population. This knowledge suggests that the public are not generally ignorant - rather, they are selectively misinformed. There are some things, in other words, that most TV viewers do know about. However, just as the unknown facts are not neutral, neither are the known ones. In particular, knowledge of Hussein's past atrocities (which, brutal as they are, are not uncommon in a world littered with dictators with scant regard for human life), clearly support the Administration's moral case against Hussein. So, for example, when asked whether the US should forcefully intervene against leaders who slaughter significant numbers of civilians, 58% responded positively (less than half this number, 27%, said no). If this moral position was applied consistently, the US would have invaded many countries that the Administration has actually supported. This suggests that people's awareness of Hussein's abuse of human rights is combined by unawareness of other comparable human rights abusers. THE MEDIA, KNOWLEDGE AND OPINION Knowing details about military hardware - particularly one that, like the Patriot, has been celebrated for its defensive capabilities, may well help those who wish to promote the idea that the enormous Pentagon budget is "money well spent". Either way, it is extremely disturbing that this public expertise in aspects of military technology is not matched by any clear understanding of the circumstances that lie behind their deployment. We cannot blame the Pentagon or the Bush Administration for only presenting those facts that lend support for their case - it isn't their job, after all, to provide the public with a balanced view. Culpability for this rests clearly on the shoulders of the news media, particularly television, who have a duty to present the public with all the relevant facts. Our study suggests that they have failed, and failed quite dismally, in performing this duty. One explanation that might account for the media's failure to communicate certain basic information (particularly information, as we have suggested, that undermines the Administration's war policy) is that people are simply not watching the news. However, as this and other surveys have discovered, people watch a great deal of TV news. They may not be watching it carefully, but they are certainly watching it. Moreover, as we have demonstrated, some information is undoubtedly getting through. What our study revealed, in fact, is that TV news seems to confuse more than it clarifies. Even after controlling for all other variables, we discovered that the correlation between TV watching and knowledge was actually a negative one. Overall, the more TV people watched, the less they knew. The only fact that did not fit in with this pattern was the ability to identify the Patriot missile. This is a sad indictment of television's priorities. Our own monitoring of the coverage suggests that the problem here is one of proportion. All the facts that we asked people have, at one time or another, been reported. Their overall presence in the news coverage is, nevertheless, very low. When compared to the presence of information about the mechanics of war or the Administration's view of the situation, it is clear that information gets lost. Whatever else this signifies, it is not good journalism. Television's tendency to present a one sided view is compounded by the economic imperatives of a system funded by advertising. The upbeat tone of the coverage thus far is seen as necessary to attract advertisers, since nobody wants their product surrounded by images of death, pain and destruction. The problem, from the point of view of journalistic objectivity, is that this upbeat tone has played into the hands of the Bush Administration's attempt to sell the public the war policy. The question raised by our findings is a significant one: if the news media had done a better job in informing people, would there be less support for the war? Our study indicates that the answer to this question is yes. This is not to say that it is not possible for people to be aware of most of the relevant facts about the Middle East and recent US foreign policy and still support the Bush policy: what are study suggests is simply that they would be less likely to. This point is implicit in our description of those things the public, on the whole, do not know, since many of these facts undermine key parts of the Administration's moral argument. What confirms it is that our study revealed a direct correlation between knowledge and opposition to the war. The more people know, in other words, the less likely they were to support the war policy. The argument we are making here is not based on politics, but on statistics. We are not saying that people against the war are right and those in favor of it are wrong, merely that since our study shows a clear relation between between knowledge and opinion, it is reasonable to assume that an increase in knowledge would lead to an increase in the opinion more strongly associated with it. There are many examples of this correlation. Supporters of the war, for example, were more than twice as likely to wrongly assert that Kuwait was a democracy than non-supporteres (25% to 12%). This suggests that a quarter of those supporting the war have been mislead into supposing that this is a "fight for democracy". Similarly, only 11% of supporters were aware that the US had failed to warn Hussein of their response to an invasion, compared to 27% of non-supporters. Once again, the only fact that supporters of the war were more aware of was the name of the Patriot missile. It is also worth noting that supporters of the war also gave much lower estimates of the loss of life in the war thus far, particularly on the Iraqi side. The average estimate of Iraqi casualties was between three and four times higher amongst those who did not support the war. While we are not in a position to verify which estimate was more accurate, there is clearly a very different perception between the two groups about the effects of the war. VIETNAM REVISITED The Vietnam War has been repeatedly invoked during the current conflict. Supporters of the war have voiced the concern that this should not be "another Vietnam". This point has been especially prevalant during condemnation of anti-war protests. We were interested to examine some of the popular conceptions of Vietnam, to find out whether they have led to a greater or lesser understanding of the Vietnam war. We began by asking our respondents whether they agreed with President Bush's view that US forces fought the Vietnam war with "one hand tied behind their back". This idea is, in our judgement, instrumental in justifying the massive use of force currently engaged in the Gulf, and in discrediting anti-war protesters for weakening the resolve of the troops and the politicians that deploy them. Most people, we discovered (79%), agreed with the President's statement. We then attempted to devise a question to see whether this perception had influenced people's memory of the war itself. The best test, we decided, was to ask people to estimate the number of Vietnamese people killed during the war, since the number of Vietnamese casualties is a direct measure of the resolve with which the US fought the war (the higher the number, the greater the resolve). The figure for US casualties of the Vietnam war is approximately 55 thousand. The figure for Vietnamese casualties is just under 2 million. The median estimate of Vietnamese casualties by respondents in our survey was around 100 thousand - a figure nearly twenty times too small. This is a little like estimating the number of victims of the Nazi holocaust at 300 thousand rather than 6 million. What this suggests is that the ideological proposition "we fought the war with one hand tied behind our backs" has induced us to rewrite our own history. The devastation inflicted upon the Vietnamese has been shrunk, quite drastically, so that it fits more easily with the image of an irresolute, half-hearted military campaign, made impotent by the objections of the anti- war movement. The news media, by reporting the Bush (and Reagan) view, rather than appraising the actual facts, are directly culpable for this rewriting of history. We hope they will redress this distortion, before it becomes fixed too solidly into our collective memory as the truth. One other finding that disturbed us concerns the question of US soldiers reported Missing in Action (MIAs). Apart from the various Rambo style movies, the evidence that there are still MIAs being held as Prisoners of War in Vietnam is, to put it charitably, decidedly flimsy. Vietnamese MIAs far outnumber those on the US side, and the only reason for supposing that Vietnam should spend time and money pointlessly incarcerating US soldiers is the racist perception of the Vietnamese people as irrational and inherently evil. Nevertheless, 70% of our respondents said they thought that Vietnam was still holding US Prisoners of War (only 16% disagreed, while 14% said they didn't know). If nothing else, this tells us that we should never underestimate the power of the media (in this case, the entertainment media) to affect the way we think. CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS Our findings suggest that the news media have failed, quite dramatically, in their role as information providers. Despite months of coverage, most people do not know basic facts about the political situation in the Middle east, or about the recent history of US policy towards Iraq. Television news, as the information source most people depend upon, is particularly responsible. While support for the war appears to be strong, it is built upon a body of knowledge that is either incorrect or incomplete. Support for the war looks even more fragile when correlated with what people know, since the more people know the less likely they are to support the war. The news media have consequently failed in their duty to be objective, since they appear to be communicating facts that support the Administration's policy and playing down those that do not. The implications of these findings suggest that the news media need to seriously re-examine the way they are covering the Gulf war. As our findings about the perception of Vietnam indicate, this means a greater concern with historical fact than with opinion and unsupported interpretations. Finally, we would suggest greater caution in the use of public opinion polls. Our study suggests that these polls do not validate the current policy, they simply reflect the failure of the news media to allow the public to reach an informed opinion. End of text from cdp:mideast.media Source: Peacenet Via New York Transfer News 718-448-2358, 718-448-2683 --- [ This file has travelled through the Socialism OnLine! BBS at +1-719-392-7781, 24 hours, 300-9600 bps HST/MNP/V42bis, on its way to you, the reader of this file. Please share any information you have about "big brother." Venceremos! ]

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