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The (In)dispensable Public

Public opinion mainly a prop for corporate press

Janine Jackson

"Asked to choose between a larger influx of troops to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and train the Afghan military, and a smaller number of new U.S. forces more narrowly focused on training, Americans divide 46 percent for the bigger number, 45 percent for the lower one." -Washington Post (11/18/09), "Poll Finds Guarded Optimism on Obama's Afghanistan Plan"

Opinion poll reporting can be misleading, in this case by presenting a narrow range of options that sidesteps what evidence suggests is the majority view-that U.S. troops should withdraw from Afghanistan. But reporting of opinion polls is misleading in a more fundamental way, in its implication that elite media give a principled hoot about what the public wants.In practice, corporate media's regard for the public and its opinions is wholly rhetorical and instrumental; even the definition of who constitutes the public seems endlessly fungible.

On the economic crisis, for example, statements like "the country has lived beyond its means" (Indianapolis Star, 11/30/09) have an inclusive sweep, spelled out in chin-stroking conclusions that "the core problems, whether in Washington, California or on Wall Street," derive from "the same moral deficiencies: self-indulgence, irresponsibility and imprudence" (David Brooks, New York Times, 9/8/09).

Of course, many people haven't been so much indulging themselves as trying to keep pace with mushrooming healthcare costs and flat wages; many more were struggling before the meltdown. Corporate media's thumbnail of a U.S. public that misbehaved merrily en masse discourages pinpointing of the crisis' real causes, even suggesting that it's inappropriate to blame just some of us for what was "a collective run of bad decision-making" (New York Times, 10/17/09).

Such reporting hints at a view of the public as an irrational mass that higher orders should not appease. Sometimes that view is more explicit; on corporate-friendly trade deals, for example, U.S. press have been known to exhort political leaders at home and abroad to ignore the people's will as proof of leadership (Extra!, 3-4/96). The public were not to be appeased on healthcare, where persistent majority support for tax-financed national health insurance was insufficient to get that idea into media's debate; yet the public could still be invoked as "favoring" this or that variant of the press-sanctioned plans (e.g., "Public Option Gains Support," Washington Post, 10/20/09), every bit as if their opinion mattered.

See also: Afghanistan. Having consistently and as it were insistently failed to represent the majority's antiwar view by including people with that perspective in news reports or on op-ed pages (Extra!, 12/09), mainstream papers nevertheless trot out the idea of public opinion for rhetorical effect, as with "Obama Must Sell Americans on Escalating Afghan War" (Boston Globe,12/1/09). One might ask how media can make a headline out of convincing a public whose failure to be convinced they studiously disregard.

On the other hand, when elite media want to dismiss an idea, consuming concern for the public and its wishes may be cited as the reason. Take the idea of paying more for coffee: Time magazine (10/5/09) assessed the "limits" of the benefits from fair trade, asking, legitimately enough, whether fair trade coffee is priced too cheaply. The prevailing rate is about $1.50 a pound, according to Time, and some think it should be closer to $2 a pound, with the extra money going to the farmers. Then Time illustrated the supposed problem with this plan by asking a Miami woman with a $4.15 Starbucks drink if she'd "pay, say, $4.50 or even $5 to help absorb higher Fair Trade prices." ("Wow, these days, that's a tough one..." she says.)

The actual increase in the price of a coffee drink-if the price of coffee beans is the determining factor-would be more like a nickel (Extra!, 11/09). But the bad math is almost ancillary: The effect is to pit one part of the public (consumers) against another part (workers, albeit in this case in another country) in order to serve an idea (you just can't pay everyone a living wage) that benefits neither.

Journalists also pit present publics against future ones, as when the Washington Post's David Broder argued (11/22/09) that proposed spending on healthcare was too much, because it's critical not to "pass along unfunded programs to our children and grandchildren," and at the same time contended (11/15/09) that Obama should escalate the Afghanistan War because "the urgent necessity is to make a decision-whether or not it is right." In the latter case, the future, cost-paying public is nowhere to be found.

Here crucial, there irrelevant-that's the U.S. public for the major press corps. It's not that reality can't be complicated, and public opinion a slippery thing. Still, thoughtful journalists should recognize that their inconsistent attention to public concerns undermines their frequent claims to be working on our behalf.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and a frequent contributor to FAIR's magazine, Extra!. She co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). And she co-hosts and produces FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin--a weekly program of media criticism airing on more than 150 stations around the country.

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