The best question asked in the aftermath of the 2004 US election came from a British newspaper, The Daily Mirror, which inquired over a picture of George W. Bush, "How can 59,054,087 be so dumb?
Now, another British newspaper has answered the question. A new marketing campaign for The Weekly Guardian, one of the most respected publications in the world, features images of a dancing Bush and notes that, "Many US citizens think the world backed the war in Iraq. Maybe it's the papers they're reading."
The weekly compendium of articles and analyses of global affairs from Britain's liberal Guardian newspaper has long been regarded as an antidote to government controlled, spun and inept local media. Nelson Mandela, when he was held in South Africa's Pollsmor Prison, referred to the Weekly Guardian as a "window on the wider world."
But is it really appropriate to compare the United States in 2004 with a warped media market like South Africa during apartheid days?
Actually, the comparison may be a bit unfair to South African media in the apartheid era--when many courageous journalists struggled to speak truth to power.
No serious observer of the current circumstance in the United States would suggest that our major media serves the cause of democracy. Years of consolidation and bottom-line pressures have forced even once responsible media to allow entertainment and commercial values to supersede civic and democratic values when making news decisions. And the determination to color within the lines of official spin is such that even the supposed pinnacles of the profession--the New York Times, the Washington Post and CBS News' 60 Minutes--have been forced to acknowledge that they got the story of the rush to war with Iraq wrong.
There can be apologies. But there cannot be excuses because, of course, media in the rest of the world got that story right.
And there are consequences when major media blows big stories. As the Weekly Guardian's new marketing campaign suggests, a lot of Americans voted for George W. Bush on November 2 on the basis of wrong assumptions.
According to a survey conducted during the fall campaign season by the Program on International Policy Attitudes--a joint initiative of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs--a lot of what Americans know is wrong.
Despite the fact that surveys by the Gallup organization and other polling firms have repeatedly confirmed that the vast majority of citizens of other countries opposed the war in Iraq, the PIPA survey found that only 31 percent of Bush supporters recognized that the majority of people in the world opposed the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
Amazingly, according to the PIPA poll, 57 percent of Bush supporters assumed that the majority of people in the world would favor Bush's reelection, while only 33 percent assumed that global views regarding Bush were evenly divided. Only 9 percent of Bush backers correctly assumed that Kerry was the world's choice.
That wasn't the end of the misperception.
"Even after the final report of Charles Duelfer to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant WMD program, 72 percent of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major program for developing them (25 percent)," explained the summary of PIPA's polling. "Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57 percent also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program."
"Similarly," the pollsters found, "75 percent of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63 percent believe that clear evidence of this support has been found. Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55 percent assume, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission."
PIPA analysts suggest that the "tendency of Bush supporters to ignore dissonant information" offers some explanation for these numbers. And there is something to that. After all, Kerry backers displayed a far sounder sense of reality in PIPA surveys.
But unless we want to assume that close to 60 million Americans look at the world only through Bush-colored glasses, there has to be some acceptance of the fact that good citizens who consume American media come away with dramatic misconceptions about the most vital issues of the day.
Sure, Fox warps facts intentionally. But what about CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, USA Today, the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as most local media across the country? They may strive to be more accurate than Fox or talk-radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh. But they still fed the American people an inaccurate picture when they allowed the Bush team to peddle lies about Iraq and other issues without aggressively and consistently challenging those misstatements of fact.
America has many great journalists. And there are still good newspapers, magazines and broadcast programs. But, taken as a whole, US media--with its obsessive focus on John Kerry's Vietnam record, its neglect of fundamental economic and environmental issues and its stenographic repetition of even the most absurd claims by the president and vice president--warped the debate in 2004.
Some of those 59,054,087 Bush voters may have been dumb.
But a far better explanation for the election result is summed up by the Weekly Guardian's observation that, "Maybe it's the papers they're reading."
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times.
© 2004 The Nation