Opinions and the News

I was listening to the news the other day and I heard a startling thing. It seems that in an age in which we have an over abundance of news sources from TV, Radio, blogs, Internet, etc., a growing number of Americans know less and less about the news.

A media polling company called the “Pew Center for the People and the Press,” asked a bunch of people nation-wide some basic questions and then compared their answers to similar questions asked ten years ago. For example, they asked “Who is the Vice-President of the United States?” The answer, of course, is Dick Cheney. But in 1989 74% of the people knew the answer (Dan Quayle) and today it’s down to 69%. When asked the name of their governor in 1989, 74% knew and today only 66%. In fact, more people knew Arnold Schwarzenegger (93%) than Lewis Libby, Robert Gates, and Harry Reid combined.

That’s pretty significant. It’s one thing for well-intentioned people to disagree on the interpretation of facts, but when we don’t even know the facts, how do we function as a democracy? They cited a number of other issues (which party controls the Congress, is the Supreme Court Chief Justice a liberal or a conservative, and does the US have a trade deficit), and in all of these the percentage of people who got it right went down from 1989 to today.

A couple of years ago another polling organization called the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) did a similar survey of our grasp of facts in the news but this time added questions about where people get their news. The results were startling. People were asked about three things. First, did we ever find links between Iraq and al Qaeda (answer: no we didn’t)? Second, were weapons of mass destruction ever found in Iraq (no, they weren’t)? Third, did global public opinion support the US in the invasion of Iraq (not one country in the world broke fifty percent in support for our invasion)? Did the CIA or the State Department ever say that we were in any imminent danger from Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (no, neither one did)?

All of these items were clear, objective facts and were reported on extensively in the news. However, the scary truth is that 60% of Americans got a majority or all of them wrong.

Again, it is one thing to say, “well, even though we don’t have any evidence of danger from Iraq, or there is no evidence of a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda, I still believe we should go to war for a variety of other reasons.” That is an informed decision based on information. But most Americans are making decisions based on wrong information. How does that happen in a democracy? How can we function as a democracy when most of our people do not know the basic facts behind the big issues of the day that our nation is debating and voting on?

Here are some other things that the majority of Americans got wrong: a big majority (93%) believe that labor and environmental standards should be written into our international trade agreements with other countries. And by a big majority they believe that President Bush agrees with them on that (by 84%). In fact he opposes adding both labor and environmental standards to trade deals.

Americans also support the US being part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (68%), the International Criminal Court (75%), the treaty banning land mines (66%), and the Kyoto treaty on climate change (54%), and they all believe by significant majorities that the president agrees with them in these things. But in fact he opposes all of them.

Whether we support this or that issue is not my point. My point is that it is frightening that we are so consistently wrong in what we think the basic facts are.

Another part of the Pew surveys looked at where we get our news, and this was also interesting. It seems that if you get your news from Fox news, then you tend to get the basic facts of an issue (say, about whether Osama and Saddam were in cahoots together) wrong a whopping 80% of the time! And if you get your news from public radio or public television (NPR or PBS), then you get the facts wrong about 23% of the time. In other words, if you get your news from Fox, then you are highly likely to still believe that Saddam was somehow behind the attacks of 911 or that Osama Bin Ladin had training camps in Iraq. But if you get your information from NPR and PBS, then you probably know better.

But my original fear is this: These basic facts in the news are not subject to debate. Not one weapons inspector, either from the US or the UN, ever said that they found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was never any credible evidence of links between Saddam and Osama; even the President has now said so. So, how can we be an informed electorate if we consistently believe things that are clearly untrue about big issues? How can our democracy function if we consistently argue and debate using bad information? What kind of role modeling are we setting for our children and grand children?