If you've ever watched one of the ongoing series of presidential primary debates and gotten the feeling that there was something a little off about it, well it turns out that on the subject of the war in Iraq at least, you were right.
According to the latest Rasmussen Reports poll, 25% of Americans favor immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. Yet, according to a study by NBC News political director Chuck Todd, the candidates advocating immediate withdrawal, Democrats Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich and Republican Ron Paul, have received 11% (167 minutes out of 1,460) of the speaking time on the eleven Democratic and ten Republican nationally televised debates. Rasmussen also found that another 38% of the country say they want all troops home within a year. However, the chart accompanying Todd's December 28, New York Times opinion piece indicates that when the time allotted Democrat Bill Richardson, a candidate who advocates one-year withdrawal, is added to that of the above three candidates, a grand total of 19% of the network time has gone to candidates supporting positions held by 63% of the country.
And this mismatch is nothing new, by the way. Rasmussen has been conducting weekly polls in partnership with Fox Television Stations since August, and each one has found support for immediate withdrawal somewhere between 20% to 30% and total backing for withdrawal within a year ranging from 57 to 64%.
So what do we get instead of an airing of the views held by most Americans? We watch debates among Republicans who largely support the Administration's Iraq policy and Democrats who claim to oppose it but will not commit to withdrawing all troops by the end of their first term in the White House. Devoted debate watchers, then, have seen 81% of this free network time go to candidates who anticipate continued occupation of Iraq through 2013! And all the while, many of these candidates are treated as if they are representing the nation's antiwar sentiment.
Network powers-that-be don't find this at all strange, of course. Todd writes, "Not surprisingly, the times for each candidate seem to follow the polls, with the leading contenders getting more minutes." The question of how the major news institutions' reporting might affect those polls remains unexamined in his article.
Since the credo of most of the American news industry is that they don't make the news, they just report the facts - or at least the facts as seen by sources credible to them, we probably shouldn't be expecting that anyone in the business will be losing too much sleep over this disconnect in the near future. They will likely continue to support the American people's right to support candidates who don't actually support their views. But even if we've gotten used to this state of affairs, the rest of us might at least ask ourselves how this campaign discussion of Iraq that is so skewed from actual public opinion must look to people outside of American media markets.
Well, it turns out that we have an answer. A BBC World Service poll of 23,000 people across 22 countries conducted last September found 39% favoring immediate US withdrawal from Iraq and a total of 67% support for withdrawal within a year. The poll also found that 49% "believe the United States plans to keep permanent military bases in Iraq," while only 36% "believe the US will withdraw all forces once Iraq is stabilized."
In analyzing the survey, Steven Kull, Director of the Washington, DC Program on International Policy Attitudes, pointed out, "While majorities in 19 of 22 countries polled want the US to be out of Iraq within a year, few think the US will do so." He added, "It seems the US is widely viewed as planning to make Iraq part of its long term military footprint in the Middle East." Perhaps they have been watching the debates.
Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts state legislator who lives in San Francisco.