The defining issue of our time is the media. Whatever issue you care most about, media coverage of that issue is likely a key stumbling block to real, progressive change.
On May 26, we wrote that "The dominant political force of our time is the media." Last week, we elaborated on that, looking back over the past dozen years to establish that "[n]o matter who emerges as a progressive leader, or a high-profile Democrat, they're in for the same flood of conservative misinformation in the media."
This week, we turn our attention to another point we outlined on May 26:
The defining issue of our time is not the Iraq war. It is not the "global war on terror." It is not our inability (or unwillingness) to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health care. Nor is it immigration, outsourcing, or growing income inequity. It is not education, it is not global warming, and it is not Social Security.
The defining issue of our time is the media.
What we meant by that, but didn't fully explain, was that more than any other issue, the media affect everything else. The Iraq war, for obvious reasons, is incredibly important, but it has little impact on outsourcing. Global warming may be among "the biggest moral challenges facing our global civilization," with dire consequences for the survival of the planet -- but we won't face that challenge as long as the media continue to falsely portray global warming as a matter of serious scientific debate.
Perhaps no recent issue offers a better example of how much flawed news reporting can shape the decisions we make as a nation than does the Iraq war.
Six months into the Iraq war, a study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found that most people who get their news from Fox News, CNN, or the three broadcast networks had serious mistaken beliefs about Iraq -- that U.S.-led forces had already found weapons of mass destruction (WMD) there, that links between Iraq and Al Qaeda had been found, that world public opinion approved of the war in Iraq, or some combination of the three. Eighty percent of Fox viewers held at least one of these mistaken beliefs, as did 71 percent of CBS viewers, 61 percent of ABC viewers, and 55 percent of NBC and CNN viewers -- clear majorities in all cases. Nearly half of those who got their news from the print media held one of these mistaken beliefs; among consumers of public broadcasting, only 23 percent did.
These mistaken beliefs had serious consequences: People who believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were more likely to support the war; people who supported the war were more likely to vote for President Bush, and so on. The world's greatest democracy made a series of decisions about war and peace; life and death; and about the world we will pass on to our children, all based on faulty information.
In April 2004, PIPA released the results of a new study (PDF):
A majority continues to believe that Iraq was giving substantial support to al Qaeda, while nearly half continue to believe that evidence of such support has been found. A majority believes that Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction or a major program for developing them. The majority of those who have such beliefs approve of the decision to go to war, while the majority of those who do not have such beliefs disapprove of the war.
One might think that that the question of whether Iraq had WMD or supported al Qaeda are now moot points in terms of the decision to go to war with Iraq -- that Americans have accepted the argument that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, that the discovery of evidence of human rights violations upstaged the arguments regarding WMD and al Qaeda, or that attitudes about the war have become a function of attitudes about how the current operation is going. However, this does not appear to be the case. Beliefs about prewar Iraq continue to be highly related to support for the decision to go to war.
Those who believe Iraq had WMD or supported al Qaeda, and those who perceive experts as either agreeing on these points, or as divided, are much more likely to say that they will vote for the President than those who do not have such beliefs and perceptions, Multivariate regression analyses suggest that were beliefs about prewar Iraq, or perceptions of what experts' assessments, to change, there is a significant possibility that this could effect voting intentions. Perceptions of experts' assessments may be related to voting for the President because they effect perceptions of his honesty.
Among those who held both beliefs--that Iraq supported al Qaeda and had WMD -- 75% favored Bush. Among those with neither belief, 78% favored Kerry.
By August 2004, the percentage of the public that still falsely believed that Iraq had WMD, or that it had worked with Al Qaeda, had dropped (PDF):
Since the end of the war majorities of the public have consistently followed the president's lead and believed what they perceived the president to be saying. However, these majorities appear to be eroding. The percentage saying that Iraq was giving substantial support to al Qaeda has dropped from 57% in March to 50% today. The percentage saying that Iraq had WMDs or a major WMD program has dropped from 60% to 54%.
Still, less than three months before the 2004 presidential election, more than half the country still falsely believed that Iraq had WMD or a major WMD program -- and people who believed that were much more likely to vote for President Bush than people who didn't.
In the middle of October 2004, just a few weeks before the election, PIPA released another study:
Three in four say that if Iraq did not have WMD and did not provide substantial support to al Qaeda, the US should not have gone to war. Saddam's intent to build WMD is not seen as a good enough reason.
Beliefs that Iraq had WMD or a major WMD program have eroded a bit, but half continue to hold these beliefs.
Iraq had WMD or a major WMD program have eroded a bit, but half continue to hold these beliefs. Views are highly polarized, with large majorities of Bush supporters holding these beliefs and large majorities of Kerry supporters rejecting them. A slight majority recognizes that the Duelfer report concluded that Iraq did not have WMD or a major program, though 6 in 10 Bush supporters believe the opposite.
On perceptions of what most experts are saying about whether Iraq had actual WMD, views are evenly divided, with 37% assuming that experts mostly agree that Iraq did have WMD, 38% that Iraq did not, and 21% saying that views are evenly divided. Compared with August (and contrary to other trends), the perceptions that most experts are saying Iraq did have WMD is up from 31%, while the perception that experts mostly say they did not is down from 43%.
Despite the report of the 9/11 Commission saying there is no evidence Iraq was providing significant support to al Qaeda, overall 52% believe that Iraq was providing significant support to al Qaeda, with 38% saying that Iraq was providing substantial support though it was not involved in 9/11 and 14% even believing that Iraq was directly involved in 9/11. 2 This view is up slightly, but not significantly, from August.
So, on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, about half of all Americans still believed the false claims that Iraq had WMD and had provided significant support to Al Qaeda. Those who held those false beliefs were, by an overwhelming margin, more likely to support President Bush than Sen. John Kerry (D-MA).
And how did they come to believe these false things? Bush administration lies and misstatements surely played a role. But so did news organizations that repeated those lies and misstatements, either in their own voice or by quoting administration officials and war proponents, without correcting the misstatements. News organizations that, long after it had been established that Iraq did not have WMD, treated it as an open question with two equally valid viewpoints. News organizations whose coverage was "strikingly one-sided" and that refused to give "the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale," as Howard Kurtz and Leonard Downie of The Washington Post described their newspaper's coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. News organizations that falsely told viewers that WMD had actually been found. Reporters who have so thoroughly absorbed the prevailing spin that they robotically repeat it even in 2006.
That's why conservative misinformation in the media is the most significant issue of our time: Because the media shape our understanding of every other issue.
Because the world's greatest democracy made a decision to go to war, and to re-elect a president, based on false information -- false information spread by the media.
Because as the weblog Think Progress has noted, "Science Magazine analyzed 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers on global warming published between 1993 and 2003. Not a single one challenged the scientific consensus the earth's temperature is rising due to human activity" -- and yet a recent study found that the majority of news stories about global warming are "structured on the journalistic norm of balanced reporting, giving the impression that the scientific community was embroiled in a rip-roaring debate on whether or not humans were contributing to global warming." Because news organizations continually repeat bogus right-wing talking points about Social Security and advance the anti-environment arguments of "Washington think tanks" that, in reality, are little more than energy industry front groups. Because media outlets hype bans on abortion and gay marriage as "religious issues" but ignore religious groups that protest right-wing budget cuts. Because they peddle the Bush administration's claims about tax cuts and misleading claims that the rich are shouldering a larger tax burden. Because whatever issue you care most about, media coverage of that issue is likely a key stumbling block to real, progressive change.
To illustrate just how much conservative misinformation the media spread, and how it affects the public's understanding of every issue, every topic, every challenge America faces, we spent a little time browsing through Media Matters' archives for examples. For those of you unfamiliar with the "Issues/Topics" browse structure of our site, it lets you quickly locate items we've posted on whatever issue you're interested in; from "Access to Abortion" to "War in Iraq." We don't have any Zs yet, but that'll change as soon as Fox figures out how to blame liberals for Zoolander.
Following, then, are some highlights of media misinformation about a range of issues:
George Will downplays the potential changes to abortion law if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Chris Matthews understates public support for Roe v. Wade. Bill O'Reilly smears Planned Parenthood, falsely claiming it "encourages" abortions among teens because it gets "paid for every abortion." O'Reilly compares opponents of parental notification laws to Nazi Germany, "where the state tells the child, 'Inform on your parents.'" The Wall Street Journal downplays Supreme Court nominees' hostility to abortion -- making their confirmation, and the eventual overturning of Roe, more likely. Anti-abortion activists get away, unchallenged, with falsely claiming majority support for their positions. News organizations legitimize fringe anti-abortion activists, giving them valuable attention while ignoring their credibility problems.
Limbaugh declares that women "live longer than men because their lives are easier." But right-wing media figures routinely denigrate women as "witches" who are "not that bright" and "want girl talk all the time" rather than news. They treat female colleagues as objects and claim women want to be "hired as eye candy" and that they "actually wish" for sexual harassment. Feminists are mocked as "feminazis" and "grouchy feminists with mustaches" whose purpose is "to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society."
Bill Bennett recklessly links race and crime -- and gets hired by CNN as a reward. John Lott gets caught using fraudulent data to support his discredited theories about guns and crime and invents a fake internet persona to hype his own falsified work -- but still is given a platform to peddle his misinformation by the Los Angeles Times.
Bill O'Reilly claims the homeless "will not support themselves" because "they want to get drunk" and "high," or they're just "too lazy." Sean Hannity falsely credits George Bush for a low unemployment rate, even though it has increased on his watch. New York Times columnist David Brooks falsely claims the unemployment rate dropped eight percentage points under President Reagan, nearly quadrupling the actual decrease. Fox News host Neil Cavuto falsely tells viewers that real wages for American workers have increased; in fact, they have decreased each of the last two years. The nation's leading news organizations suppress news that the Bush administration may have improperly delayed a congressionally mandated report on outsourcing until well after the 2004 elections, then edited the final report to remove anti-outsourcing findings. Rush Limbaugh says the minimum wage is "seven bucks an hour" and claims it "has gotten so high that it's paying people that are not skilled to do anything"; in fact, the federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour -- and has been since 1997. Limbaugh also tells his listeners that "75 percent of the people earning minimum wage" are teenagers; in reality, only 32 percent are.
Bill O'Reilly claims taxes are responsible for high gas prices, suggesting that state and federal governments have an interest in gas prices rising: "[T]hey're making more money, the government's making more money now that the uh, gasoline prices are higher, because their tax goes up." That's false: The federal government and three-quarters of state governments assess gasoline taxes on a per-gallon basis, not as a percentage of sale prices. Rush Limbaugh pretends high gas prices are a temporary blip, claiming gas was only $1.29 a gallon "seven months ago." At the time, it had been three and a half years since gas cost as little as $1.29 a gallon. Countless news organizations overstate -- or allow conservatives to overstate without correction -- the amount of oil that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could produce, furthering drilling proponents' false claims that drilling in ANWR would lower energy prices.
Leading news organizations all but ignore a peaceful religious protest against Republican-sponsored budget cuts to social programs. The Washington Post doesn't cover Democratic budget proposals, and omits mention of the impact Bush's tax cuts would have on the deficit. Chris Matthews ignores the fact that budget deficits declined -- and even became surpluses -- under President Clinton before ballooning under Bush, declaring: "I don't think the Democrats are any better" than Republicans at being fiscally responsible. Rush Limbaugh goes one step further, insisting that "there never was a surplus" under Clinton. There was. Limbaugh tells listeners the federal government spends as much on the environment as on defense and homeland security and that "we spend over two times on education already, what we spend on defense." Both claims are breathtakingly inaccurate. ABC repeats Bush's claims that his tax cuts "have helped expand the economy and create jobs" while omitting contrary views. In an article about a Republican tax cut proposal, The Wall Street Journal fails to mention that the bill would confer disproportionate benefit on the wealthy. The Journal, the Associated Press, and USA Today all covered the House of Representatives' passage of tax breaks -- without noting that the tax breaks far exceeded recent spending cuts, meaning that they would add to the deficit, (notwithstanding Sean Hannity's false claims that Ronald Reagan's tax cuts "doubled revenue.")
Media falsely claim that Health Savings Accounts yield "high customer satisfaction"; falsely claim that countries with government-run health care spend a larger portion of their gross domestic product (GDP) on health care than the United States does; falsely claim that drug re-importation would not reduce prescription drug costs; and falsely claim (or repeat the false claims of others) that malpractice lawsuits are responsible for rising health care costs and vaccine shortages.
Media figures overstate public support for the conservatives' scheme to privatize Social Security; falsely characterize that privatization plan as an addition to the current system, rather than something that would be carved-out from it; repeat the Bush administration's widely-debunked claim that the Social Security system will "run out of money" in the early 2040s; repeat bogus claims that Social Security shortchanges minorities; and endorse flawed descriptions of the Social Security trust fund. They hype other nation's failed privatization schemes, pretending they have worked. They give extensive coverage to Republican front-groups as though they were a real grassroots seniors organization. They commit "premeditated, historical fraud" in claiming Franklin Delano Roosevelt would support privatization.
Well, you get the picture: Whatever issue you care most about, the media are likely skewing the public debate badly.
But there's another way the debate is skewed. The major media give a megaphone to every hate-filled third-rate intellect the conservative movement has to offer, allowing the likes of Michael Savage and Ann Coulter to shape the national discourse.
Coulter has said she wished the United States military would kill American journalists. She has suggested beating liberals with baseball bats. She has said her only regret about Timothy McVeigh is that he did not blow up the New York Times building. She suggested assassinating a sitting president of the United States. As a reward, she got a nearly 6,000-word cover story in Time magazine -- an article that whitewashed her habitual lies and downplayed her grossly inappropriate rhetoric. She was invited to appear on NBC's Today show -- not once, not twice, but three times in only eight months. And when she (predictably) used that forum to engage in even more hate speech, NBC acted shocked -- shocked! -- that Coulter could be so crass.
In her new "book," Coulter angrily smears 9-11 widows:
COULTER: "These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles, reveling in their status as celebrities, and stalked by grief-arazzis. I have never seen people enjoying their husband's deaths so much."
Yet after Coulter's June 6 appearance on the Today show, in which she stood by her claim that the widows are "enjoying" their husbands' deaths, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams reported that Coulter had gone "over the line -- the line that is shared by just about everybody because some things, it turns out, are still sacred."
What the heck did NBC think was going to happen if it gave Coulter access to the airwaves? This is a person who says 9-11 widows are "enjoying their husband's deaths"; who has suggested assassinating a sitting president; who has repeatedly called for violence against liberals and journalists. And NBC wants you to believe it is shocked and dismayed that she would cross "the line," piously telling you that some things "are still sacred." Coulter's calls for violence -- assassination, even -- against liberals and journalists didn't clue them in to the possibility that she went "over the line" (not to mention 'round the bend) years ago? Of course NBC knew Coulter was "over the line" before it invited her: She didn't say anything in her appearance that was further over the line than what she wrote in her book -- a passage Today host Matt Lauer read on-air. NBC just didn't care.
And, as Greg Sargent reports, NBC may host Coulter again:
A spokesperson for NBC Today, Lauren Kapp, has responded to our questions about the show's willingness to give a platform to Ann Coulter, helping her sell a book in which she opined that the 9/11 widows are "enjoying their husband's deaths."
Short version: The show is leaving open the possibility of future Coulter appearances. And it's not directly answering whether that means they see her assertions as falling within their standards of discourse, taste, or civility.
This is what NBC and the rest of the media have made of our public discourse: They routinely confer legitimacy on venomous, hate-filled right-wing pundits. Uber-pundit Howard Fineman, for example, said on the June 7 edition of MSNBC's Hardball: "I think Ann Coulter often has interesting and provocative things to say about the clash between liberalism and conservatism." Interesting? Which part: Her desire for the military to kill U.S. journalists? Or her suggestion that Bill Clinton be assassinated?
When an Ann Coulter appears on NBC or in Time magazine, those news outlets not only tell the world that Coulter is someone to be taken seriously, they nudge the bounds of acceptable discourse a bit further to the right. Suddenly, far-right politicians appear mainstream by comparison. Suddenly moderates appear liberal, and liberals appear extreme, and people who are VERY liberal ... well, you don't see them on television at all.
Sure, Bill O'Reilly will tell you that "[n]o doubt some far-left pundits have said far worse things than Ann Coulter will ever say, and the mainstream media often celebrates them." But he's lying. There simply is no progressive pundit who has mused publicly about killing a U.S. president; called for violence against American reporters and conservatives -- and been a guest on the Today show three times in eight months. It doesn't happen. Nor should it. But why the double-standard? Why do the media define the acceptable rightward bounds of public discourse to be Ann Coulter and her bottomless reservoir of hate, and, by doing so, pull the discussion of serious issues further and further to the right?
So, what can be done about the problems we've outlined? We'll touch on some answers next week. Until then, posters on blogs such as Firedoglake and Greg Sargent's new The Horse's Mouth have recently offered some excellent ideas.