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Public Remains Poorly Informed On Reasons for War

26 August 2004 | Editor and Publisher

New poll raises old question: Has the press done enough or is there only so much it can do?

by Greg Mitchell

Shortly after the U.S. attack on Iraq last year, reputable polls showed that vast numbers of Americans were woefully uninformed or misinformed about certain key issues relating to the war.

These were not minor matters, but cut to the heart of the stated reasons for the war: that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), had strong links to al Qaeda, and/or might have had something to do with 9/11. One poll showed that most people wrongly believed one or more Iraqis were among the 9/11 hijackers.

The key question, for E & P, was: How much of this ignorance could be pinned on the press for failing to “educate” their readers? Or did it simply reflect public indifference to background issues and the growing partisanship that leads citizens of all stripes to believe everything their favorite pol or pundit tells them?

Those questions remain unanswered, but more food for thought arrived this week with release of the latest poll from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, which has been following this angle closely.

It found that while public awareness of the known facts surrounding the Iraq invasion has increased in the past months, it has a long way to go to reflect reality.

The survey of 733 Americans taken in early August (with accuracy at plus or minus 3.5%) showed that:

* 35% believe Iraq had WMD when the U.S. invaded, and another 19% feel it “had a major program for developing them” at the time.

* Exactly half believe that Iraq was either closely linked with al Qaeda before the war (35%) or was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks (15%).

In most of these cases, the number holding mistaken views has declined in recent months by only a few percentage points despite the high-profile debunking of these myths by various official investigating bodies or the 9/11 Commission.

It’s impossible to say from all this how much the media is responsible for sustaining (or failing to incessantly challenge) this mass confusion. There is, after all, only so much we can do. Consider this: Even though the 9/11 Commission had just released its report, only 47% knew that it concluded that Iraq did not give substantial support to al Qaeda.

Again: has the media failed or are most Americans tuned out — or tuned in to news outlets that keep them in the dark?

The answer is vital for the future of newspapers…and for the outcome of the 2004 election. Only 49% of the PIPA sample feel that President Bush deliberately misled the public in the run-up to the war, but this is not surprising given that better than one in three still believe that Iraq had WMD and was providing substantial support to al Qaeda.

In fact, among those who wrongly believe that Iraq had WMD, 81% think going to war was the right decision. Among those who correctly know that Iraq had no WMD, just 8% think the war was right. We can pretty much guess who plans to vote for Bush, and who for Kerry.

One other factoid: only 41% correctly placed U.S. deaths in Iraq in the 800-to-1000 range (at a time when the toll was just over 900).

Despite all the skewed misperceptions, the poll found that doubts about the war continue to grow, with the number saying the U.S. made the “right decision” to go to war slipping nine points from March, now down to 46%.

And in a finding that raises questions about why U.S. newspapers — and the Democrat nominee for president — have failed to call for troop reductions in Iraq, the PIPA poll found that the majority of Americans, some 53%, now want withdrawals, with 24% calling for a complete pullout.

So is the media complicit in failing to hammer home certain facts, or can you lead readers to the truth but you can’t make them drink it? Send your thoughts to me at the e-mail address below.

Greg Mitchell (gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor of E&P.

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