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Misleading America
Published on Monday, October 20, 2003 by the United Press International
Misleading America
Commentary by Shaun Waterman

WASHINGTON -- It's official -- watching Fox News makes you ignorant.

To be precise, researchers from the Program on International Policy at the University of Maryland found that those who relied on Fox for their news were more likely than those who relied on any other news source to have what the study called "significant misperceptions" about the war in Iraq.

Pollsters asked more than 9,000 Americans about three commonly held canards: that the United States had hard evidence Saddam Hussein had been working closely with al-Qaida; that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq; and that world public opinion was in favor of the U.S.-led war.

Overall, a scary 60 percent believed at least one of these fallacies. Eight percent believed all three.

The most commonly held was -- unsurprisingly -- the Iraq/al-Qaida link. Fully 48 percent of respondents believed this. The totals for the other two were in the 20 percent to 25 percent range.

But among those who get their news from Fox, 80 percent had at least one "misperception" and 45 percent -- nearly six times the overall average -- had all three.

Champions of public broadcasting can draw comfort from the fact that those who relied on NPR or PBS had the lowest misperception rate. A mere 23 percent -- less than half the next highest rate -- believed one or more.

Depressingly for broadcasters, those who said they paid close attention to the news were no less likely to be mistaken. Indeed, the more closely respondents said they watched Fox, the more likely they were to harbor these inaccurate beliefs.

Only those who got their news from what the study lumped together as "print sources" benefited from paying closer attention.

The researchers also concluded that these results were not simply the reflection of the original biases of the audience. Among those who relied on NPR or PBS, for instance, those who supported President Bush and the war itself were still much less likely to believe any of the myths.

NPR listeners, of course, tend to be better educated and wealthier than the average American, but the study found the same pattern of erroneous beliefs when they controlled for demographic factors like age, income and race.

Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody retorted that the study only asked people about "their impressions, not what they knew to be true."

I'm not sure what point he thought he was making, but it was lost on me.

Moody also -- employing the kind of linguistic cudgel that so often the marks the on-air verbal perambulations of his employees -- called the study a "tutt-tutting exercise in academic self-arousal."

Resorting to that kind of abuse is an admission of defeat in argument even in the school playground. In the mouth of a senior executive it sounds like an act of desperation.

Of course, Americans aren't the only people who suffer from "significant misperceptions."

Absent opinion polls -- or even the right to hold opinions -- one can only speculate how many Saudis share the views of their Interior Minister Prince Nayef Ibn Abd al-Aziz, who told the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Siyasa last year that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were in all likelihood carried out by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad.

Over the summer, a small poll by the German weekly Die Zeit, found that almost one out of three Germans respondents under 30 believed the U.S. government itself was behind the attacks. Of the 1,000 questioned overall, about 20 percent shared this view.

That is terrifying, especially in an educated, urbanized modern society.

Germany is, after all, hardly comparable to Saudi Arabia. But the Germans are not alone.

Over the past year, a series of books promoting conspiracy theories about the attacks have topped best-seller lists across continental Europe. Their authors propound a series of obvious fallacies -- that the Pentagon was not struck by a plane; that the attacks were staged as an excuse to seize control of central Asian oil reserves; and on and on.

But there's an important difference between this European misinformation and that apparently promoted so effectively by Fox.

The conspiracy buffs all naturally allege some kind of cover-up, aided, of course, by the mainstream media, who are said to have ignored or suppressed "evidence" for the authors' wild theories. These suggestions strike a chord -- especially among young people -- who, surveys show, trust the mainstream media less and less.

The Die Zeit poll found that more than two-thirds of Germans believed their own news organizations had not reported the full truth about the attacks.

It seems, therefore, that these widely held fallacies are at least in part a result of mistrust of the official accounts of the events of that day.

In and of itself, this is not objectionable. To the contrary, it is always good to have a healthy skepticism about the way governments portray their own history.

Nor is it incomprehensible.

Indeed, many relatives of the victims of the attacks say they still don't know enough about what happened in New York, at the Pentagon, and over rural Pennsylvania. They believe that the U.S. government is slow-walking the commission they fought to establish, which is charged with producing an authoritative account of the attacks and of working out what went wrong and way.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Bush administration has something to hide.

But if the European misconceptions are based on a distrust of the official version, here in the United States, the misconceptions are the official version.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the president himself all continue to exaggerate both the findings of David Kay -- the man leading the U.S. hunt for banned weapons in Iraq -- and the degree of international support for the U.S.-led military campaign.

Only a month ago, Cheney told NBC's Tim Russert that Saddam's regime worked closely with al-Qaida: something that almost everyone who knows anything about the issue dismisses as -- at best -- completely unsupported by the currently available evidence.

The bottom line? Maybe Fox isn't to blame for misleading their viewers after all. Perhaps they are simply reporting less critically than other networks the highly misleading statements of the country's leaders.

Copyright © 2001-2003 United Press International


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