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|MARCH 26, 2003
Polls Suggest Media Failure in Pre-War Coverage
Public Believed Saddam Was Behind 9-11, Has Nukes
By Ari Berman
NEW YORK --
Thousands of American soldiers have marched into Iraq,
bombs are falling, and oil fields are ablaze. After the shooting stops,
press attention probably will focus on our pursuit of Saddam Hussein's
henchmen, our search for hidden stocks of weapons of mass destruction,
and our "securing the peace" for a democratic Iraq. But when the war
dies down, editors and media analysts should catch their breath and ask
themselves: How much did press coverage (or lack of coverage)
contribute to the public backing for a pre-emptive invasion without the
support of the United Nations?
When it came down to crunch time, the American people
-- as evidenced by opinion polls conducted after President Bush's
ultimatum to Saddam on March 17 -- supported the attack by about a
2-to-1 margin. Some of this reflected the usual rallying 'round the
flag that accompanies every war, but the truth is, Bush always had
strong (if nervous) popular support.
This support in the polls long perplexed ardent
critics of U.S. policy, who pointed out that the public rallied to the
war even though, according to the most-recent surveys, a vast majority
of our citizens believed that the attack would increase, not decrease,
the terrorist threat and would hurt, not help, our economy.
So, what motivated Americans to back their president
throughout the winter of discontent -- when much of the rest of the
world strongly disagreed with the need for war now?
Of course, there were many reasons, ranging from
partisan politics to genuine hatred and fear of the evil Saddam. But
there was another key factor: Somehow, despite the media's exhaustive
coverage of the post-9/11 world and the Saddam threat, a very large
segment of the American public remained un- or misinformed about key
issues related to the Iraqi crisis. Let's look at a few recent polls.
In a Jan. 7 Knight Ridder/Princeton Research poll, 44%
of respondents said they thought "most" or "some" of the Sept. 11,
2001, hijackers were Iraqi citizens. Only 17% of those polled offered
the correct answer: none. This was remarkable in light of the fact
that, in the weeks after 9/11, few Americans identified Iraqis among
the culprits. So the level of awareness on this issue actually plunged
as time passed. Is it possible the media failed to give this
In the same sample, 41% said that Iraq already
possessed nuclear weapons, which not even the Bush administration
claimed. Despite being far off base in crucial areas, 66% of
respondents claimed to have a "good understanding" of the arguments for
and against going to war with Iraq.
Then, a Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign
Relations survey released Feb. 20 found that nearly two-thirds of those
polled believed that U.N. weapons inspectors had "found proof that Iraq
is trying to hide weapons of mass destruction." Neither Hans Blix nor
Mohamed ElBaradei ever said they found proof of this.
The same survey found that 57% of those polled
believed Saddam Hussein helped terrorists involved with the 9/11
attacks, a claim the Bush team had abandoned. A March 7-9 New York
Times/CBS News Poll showed that 45% of interviewees agreed that "Saddam
Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks," and
a March 14-15 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found this apparently mistaken notion holding firm at 51%.
The significance of this is suggested by the finding,
in the same survey, that 32% of those supporting an attack cited
Saddam's alleged involvement in supporting terrorists as the "main
reason" for endorsing invasion. Another 43% said it was "one reason."
Knowing this was a crucial element of his support --
even though he could not prove the 9/11 connection -- the president
nevertheless tried to bolster the link. Bush mentioned 9/11 eight times
during his March 6 prime-time news conference, linking it with Saddam
Hussein "often in the same breath," Linda Feldmann of The Christian Science Monitor
observed last week. "Bush never pinned the blame for the [9/11] attacks
directly on the Iraqi president," Feldmann wrote. "Still, the overall
effect was to reinforce an impression that persists among much of the
Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center,
told me last week: "It's very rare to find a perception that's been so
disputed by experts yet firmly held by the public. There's almost
nothing the public doesn't believe about Saddam Hussein."
The question, again, is: Did the press do a solid
enough job in informing the public about the key contested issues? "If
the U.S. war against Iraq goes well, then the Bush administration is
likely not to face questions about the way it sold the war," Feldmann
conceded. "But if war and its aftermath go badly, then the
administration could be under fire." Newspapers could be, too.
Now that the prewar march is behind us, let's hope the press does a better job of informing Americans in a post-Saddam world.
E&P welcomes letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Editor & Publisher Online
Ari Berman is a reporter for E&P.
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