Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/08/2008 (9:40 pm)

Voting Blind

A few weeks ago we heard a follow-up report to a survey commissioned by filmmaker John Ziegler regarding how well-informed Obama voters were concerning their candidate. Ziegler had produced a 10-minute clip that has been viewed almost 2 million times on YouTube, illustrating how poorly informed several Obama voters were about basic campaign issues and facts. I’ve embedded the 10-minute clip in case you’ve somehow missed it.

These were not stupid people, they were clean, prosperous, ordinary folks, at least one of whom considered herself well-informed. Ziegler followed up his brief set of interviews by commissioning a nationwide survey by the Zogby organization, and it confirmed the results of the interviews: the vast majority of Obama voters could not name which party controls Congress, which candidate said he’d visited 57 states, which candidate said his policies could bankrupt coal-fired power plants, which candidate had won prior elections by having his opponents disqualified through ballot challenges, which candidate had been forced to remove himself from consideration in a prior election due to plagiarism, or which candidate had launched his political career in the home of two members of the Weather Underground. They performed better when asked about Sarah Palin’s wardrobe and her pregnant daughter, and appallingly, when faced with negative reports they could not attribute to anybody in particular, they tended blithely to assign them to Sarah Palin. Nice.

Ziegler then asked Zogby International to repeat the survey, this time polling McCain voters. Zogby declined, arguably because the reaction from the left had been too rabid and they did not want to alienate possible clients. Wilson Research took the task, and the results showed that McCain supporters were marginally better informed on several topics — but hardly well-informed. For example, Ziegler noted that only 18% of Obama voters could correctly name which party controlled Congress. McCain voters scored 38%, a significantly better performance but not one to be proud of. Obama supporters outscored McCain’s on the question identifying McCain with the Keating Five scandal, but again, neither group scored all that well.

Ziegler, who is in the process of producing a documentary entitled Media Malpractice, claims that this is the result of a stunningly biased and inept press corps that went out of its way to shield the Democratic candidate from any reasonable scrutiny. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the press handled the election horribly, and in fact we even got treated to the rare (but not unheard of) prime member of the press corps admitting the bias, as Mark Halperin of Time called the press’ performance “disgusting” and denounced “extreme pro-Obama bias.”

However, I beg to differ with both Misters Halperin and Ziegler: I don’t believe the bias in the current election was greater than that of past elections, and I don’t think the bias explains the outcome.

Americans were not generally aware of the depth of bias in the print media until the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1985 and the rise of conservative talk radio. As alternatives to the mainstream press sources began to spread through the early 90s, though, citizens became more and more aware of the depth of distortion produced by biased reporting. By just after 2000, we started to see books published about the leftward bias of the media — Bias, by Bernard Goldberg of CBS, Slander, by Ann Coulter, and several others — and organizations formed around the question, like Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center.

What was changing was not the depth of the bias, but rather the awareness of it. The press has been highlighting Democratic talking points and ignoring Republican ones for as long as I’ve been watching. Their ardor for Barack Obama was more intense than their feelings toward Al Gore or John Kerry, but that merely reflects the charisma of the candidates; there was little about either Gore or Kerry to inspire enthusiasm. The level of protection Gore and Kerry received from the press was not any less consistent than the protection Obama received.

Nor were they the first to be protected. I suspect that Ziegler’s poll would have discovered similar results polling any major issue in American political history from about 1985 forward, and there are some indications that the bias began a long time before that. For instance, if one paid attention only to the TV news sources and main newspapers in the 1980s — the Washington Post, the New York Times, ABC, NBC, and CBS — one would have thought that the Nicaraguan Contras were nothing but power-mad thugs oppressing the ordinary worker and intimidating them with gangs that roamed the streets at night. This was mostly due to a Sandanista propaganda campaign, but that campaign was dutifully echoed by the American press through the late 1980s. Viewers of mainstream news might have been convinced that Ronald Reagan contrived to delay the release of Iran’s political prisoners in order to effect the 1980 election, a charge for which a congressional committee found no evidence but which Ted Koppel repeated well into the 1990s. Thanks to the mainstream press, a year after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, the majority of Americans believed Anita Hill had been sexually harassed on the job, whereas fewer than half believed her while the hearings were ongoing. Americans relying on the mainstream press were probably not aware of the disturbing pattern of apparent graft between the Clinton administration and China, with the Clintons receiving illegal contributions during the 1996 campaign and the Chinese receiving favors from the US government. Americans relying on the press barely knew of the Smaltz Commission that returned 14 felony convictions for bribery of high Clinton administration officials, nor of the Barrett Commission that reported that the Clintons had probably feloniously interfered with an FBI investigation. People relying on the press thought Al Gore was too intelligent for his own good, but heard nothing about his resume-enhancing misrepresentations. Nobody relying on the American press would have had the slightest notion that John Kerry had ever exaggerated any claim about his military service, nor would have been reminded of his involvement in anti-war activism in the wake of the Vietnam war.

These are just a few of the issues on which reporting by the largest press organs has been entirely unreliable over the years; there are hundreds more.

The useful take from the Ziegler research is what it says about the impact of different news outlets on how well-informed the voters were. The latest research, which covers both Obama and McCain voters, suggests (but does not prove) that Fox News viewers were better informed about both candidates, while viewers of local news or CNN Headline News were poorly informed. This is not carefully-constructed research that would survive peer review, more study would be needed in order to make a claim of fact, but it’s at least suggested by the responses by the interviewees concerning where they get their news. This stands as a useful foil against the PIPA Knowledge Networks Poll, a bit of leftist fluff commissioned during the early days of the Iraq war to “prove” that conservatives in general, and Fox News viewers in particular, were poorly informed about the causes of the war, focusing on three questions that echoed Democratic party talking points. To this day, leftists claim that Fox has been “discredited” by this ridiculous excuse for research; nobody familiar with the issues, and with proper polling procedure, could mistake this for anything but what it was, a hit piece. The Ziegler poll is not ironclad research, but it has the benefit of questions the answers to which are unambiguous.

I said earlier that I did not think that press bias was to blame for Obama’s win. Simply put, the public has no excuse for being so badly misinformed. The information about the candidates was readily available to anybody who bothered to do a little research. Good grief, can you imagine blaming the press for peoples’ ignorance about who’s controlling Congress? The Democrats won control of Congress two years ago, and the press reported it accurately at the time. It was only 38% of McCain voters — the better informed group — that knew it, and less than 1 in 5 Obama voters. The folks on Ziegler’s video did not know who Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid were. So the complaint about the press is, they didn’t present relevant facts clearly enough that the average voter who barely pays attention could catch the information the way they catch a cold. True, they didn’t present some of the relevant facts at all, but there are clear indications that the public wouldn’t have caught the information even if it were there. The press is to blame, but the voters are more so.

There’s no escaping it, folks. We can complain (accurately enough) about the irresponsibility of the press, but ultimately, we have the government we deserve.

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December 9, 2008 @ 9:39 am #

Yup. The Politically Ignorant, or the Irresponsible Vote demographic. They’ve been around forever and are likely the reason The Founders didn’t give The Vote to everyone.

December 9, 2008 @ 4:52 pm #


Agree with you on this. I quoted on this blog a day or so after the election that the people usually get the government they deserve, and here we are.

The question is what to do about it, how to stem the tide. The reality is that most people get their “serious” news from such informed and objective sources such as NYT, WaPo, Newsweek, Time, 60 Minutes, the nightly news with Katie Couric et al, CNN, and MSNBC. These sources are about as objective and balanced as a Harry Reid talking point (well, maybe Harry is actually a little fairer because you at least know where he is coming from).

Fox IS balanced, but tilts right. So they pick up their small market share while everone else watches the rest of the above sources. And in the meantime these “non Fox” people are subjected to a barrage of propaganda about how Fox is simply a right wing noise machine. It is said so often it is falling in the category of one of those lib truisms like “Bush lied us into war for oil.”

Add in the exceedingly liberal bent of other pop culture mags such as Cosmo, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Esquire, GQ, etc, etc. Cripes, even Sports Illustrated flys the liberal flag from time to time. Now toss in the TV shows like Boston Legal which are a megaphone for the left, and Hollywood’s well documented liberal preference which shows up consistently in movies. And always with the snarky, condescending attitude of “Everyone with any brains thinks this way, of course. My God, I don’t even know anyone who voted for a Republican. You don’t know anyone that stupid, do you?”

You have to be a pretty determined and somewhat knowledgeable person simply to penetrate the noise machine. And even more determined to stay the course when most of your friends spout Democrat talking points at every social gathering. It’s simply way too easy to just go with the flow and be a liberal Democrat.

You have pointed out the problem of media bias and it is well known. But I have yet to see any form of comprehensive plan from the Republican Party on how to level the playing field, or even that they have really given it much thought.

I believe part of that reflects the sort of conservative attitude that prefers not to complain, and says we should just pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. I know Rush Limbaugh speaks of the bias often, but with the attitude of “Stop griping, the media are who they are, deal with it and move on.”

Much as I like Rush, that doesn’t cut it for me. Evan Thomas was quoted last election cycle as saying he felt the media slant for Kerry would be worth a 15 point bump to Kerry. And that was pre-Obamamania. Earth to Elephant Party: has anyone wrapped their minds around the magnitude of a 15 point advantage? And what it would mean to have this even partly neutralized?

The Republican Party needs a media Manhattan Project as of yesterday. IMO, this is a huge issue, and it is mind boggling to me that it is not addressed in that manner.

For what it is worth, I thought the media made even less of a pretense of neutrality this time around with Obama. They seemed then and now be pretty much squarely in the tank the whole way, and seemingly care little whether people perceive it that way or not.

December 9, 2008 @ 9:15 pm #

I’m blaming the education system which is very biased. I homeschool grandchildren. Can’t see a reason why a 6th grader wouldn’t know who fought who in WWII, or that people in the middle ages couldn’t read and write, and had never heard of a “cathedral” after studying middle ages in Europe. “Social promotion” is a scam on the entire country.

January 9, 2009 @ 4:46 pm #

[…] the recent election. We saw pieces of Zeigler’s work just after the election season, in the video of Obama voters who could not answer basic questions about the election. The interview was very friendly to Gov. […]

December 29, 2010 @ 12:20 pm #

[…] the minds of Obama voters was left to conservative partisans like John Zeigler, who, in fact, did a much better job of demonstrating that the voters were misinformed than PIPA does here (and Obama voters were the most misinformed of all — but nobody was […]

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