What Do Americans Know? Not Very Much

Millions of Americans accept what they are told and think they understand what they see. And what they are told and what they see is most often news as a manipulated commodity. But the facts that really count rarely reach a significant number of the public's ears or eyes.

Also, most reporters know governments lie, mislead and deceive. They also know that the press is ostensibly there to keep an eye on governments, to dissect errors and omissions by offering more truthful counter-narratives. That was the role an adversarial media played during Watergate, during the Vietnam War, and even, if distastefully, during the Clinton administration.

Today, our media has abandoned this historic role, That part of the public that remembers the great journalists of the past knows it. Even journalistic greats admit it. Just before his death June 11, newscaster David Brinkley said of the medium that was his life. "Television news has become so trivial and devoid of content as to be little different from entertainment programming."

But many in the public don't even expect the media to be honest in its reporting. The Jason Blair affair at The New York Times was the tip of an iceberg. Major newspapers such as The Boston Globe and The Washington Post have, in the past, been humiliated by revelations that reporters falsified stories. Beyond simple credibility, today's media system has fused news biz and show biz.

News understanding (and misunderstanding) is driven more by impressions and images than information. One recent Gallup Poll survey reported that 40 percent of the people believed weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. An early poll found a similar percentage saying there was an Iraqi hijacker on 9/11.

In contrast, 44 percent of the public in England, where the media is more critical of the government, told the Daily Telegraph's Yougov Poll that they believe their government and the Bush administration misled them about the threat from Iraq. At the same time, a CNN/USA Today Poll found that 56 percent of Americans said the war was justified if weapons of mass destruction are never found.

The general absence of comprehensive, thorough reporting is particularly regrettable with Washington under the control of an administration that has taken public relations into the realm of "perception management." Its corporate-trained communications specialists have perfected a 24-hour spin machine while coordinating every official utterance. They've coined and tested repeatable catch-phrases to mobilize opinion. They want to ensure that we regurgitate their simplified phrases, and salute their patriotic stands. In their world, propaganda is passed off as marketing.

Granted, because of cable television and the Internet, the number of information sources available to the public has exploded. But "in-depth" television reporting is brief and ephemeral and rarely is retained in the minds of the audience. Cable outlets serve niche audiences. More diverse Web sites often have limited constituencies. Weekly and monthly opinion magazines such as The Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker or Harper's may report in genuine depth on issues of consequence but mostly have relatively small circulations. Many appeal to an elite segment of the population that thinks it's influential and numerous, but is neither.

When it comes to newspapers, probably a couple of million people a day read the nation's best known daily - The New York Times. They think they are an influential, important group and they believe they have all the facts about everything that's going on in the world. Indeed, for many of them, the Times is the world. But the Times makes hundreds of errors annually and its reporting is often influenced by its own agendas. More importantly, Times readers really are just a tiny segment of America.

All of the above represents a problem for our democracy. The most important day in America isn't Christmas. It's the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. There are more than 163 million voters nationwide. Only a tiny percentage of them could honestly be described as truly well informed and, therefore, they don't amount to as much as many media mavens delude themselves into thinking.

It is context, background and interpretation that give information meaning. When that is missing, as it often is, so is understanding.

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