The Essential Role for News Media

By Elliott, Deni | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Essential Role for News Media


Elliott, Deni, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


On September 18, 2003, President George W. Bush said publicly that there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. (1) That announcement must have confused the 70 percent of Americans polled who believed that the deposed leader of Iraq was "personally involved" with the suicide bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. (2) The president's admission certainly surprised me because it was President Bush and the White House staff who had intentionally created the erroneous connection in the first place.

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The purported connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda was not the only thing that confused Americans. Polls conducted by scholars and news organizations since the "War on Terror" began in September 2001 showed the development of other disturbing misunderstandings.

For example, polls conducted soon after 9/11 showed that very few Americans, fewer than 5 percent, mentioned Iraq in speculating who was responsible for the attacks. But, by January 2003, a Knight-Ridder poll found that 44 percent of those polled believed that "some" or "most" of the hijackers were Iraqi. The correct answer is none. (3)

A poll conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland in June 2003 found that 41 percent of Americans polled believed either that the United States had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (34 percent) or were unsure whether weapons of mass destruction had been found (7 percent). (4)

Misperceptions such as these led to a level of public support for the United States-led invasion and occupation that might not have been there otherwise. For example, the University of Maryland pollsters found that of those who approved of U.S. operations in Iraq, 52 percent believed that, in the ensuing conflict, the United States had found weapons of mass destruction. (5)

Four months later, the University of Maryland researchers explored further the connection between misperceptions and support of the war. They found a direct link between the 60 percent of Americans who held one or more of three misconceptions (that the United States had found weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein was involved with the 9/11 attacks, and that people in other countries either backed the U.S. invasion or were evenly split in their support), and support for the invasion and occupation. According to a news report of the poll, "Among those with one of the three misconceptions, 53 percent supported the war. Among those with two, 78 percent supported it. Among those with three, 86 percent backed it. By contrast, less than a quarter of those polled who had none of the misconceptions backed the war." (6)

It ought to be no surprise that citizens support policy and governmental action on the basis of their understanding of the justification for that policy and action. But, the consequence of misperceptions regarding Iraq is an important illustration of the breakdown in contemporary American democracy, as are the even more-disturbing polls that relate to Americans' perception of their ability to trust their president and the connection between news sources and citizens' misunderstandings.

According to a story published July 1, 2003, by the Associated Press, only 39 percent of those polled believed that the U.S. administration was being "fully truthful" in presenting evidence about a link between Saddam and the Al Qaeda terrorist network. (7)

The October 2003 University of Maryland Poll found that "80 percent of those who said they relied on Fox News and 71 percent of those who said they relied on CBS believed at least one of the three misperceptions. The comparable figures were 47 percent for those who said they relied most on news-papers and magazines and 23 percent for those who said they relied on PBS or National Public Radio." (8)

Government, news media, and citizens form the necessary triad for democracy. …

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