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Fox, CBS misled public about Iraq

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Monday, October 06, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist

Survey shows Fox led in misleading public

Fox News Channel, like the White House, got a ratings boost from the aftermath of 9-11. The tactics were remarkably similar.

Network executives gauged the nation's anger and panic and recognized war in Iraq as a rallying point, provided they gave viewers the sort of firm leadership unsullied by second-guessing. It was a smart call.

Once war arrived, of course, Fox wasn't alone in the media campaign to win audience hearts. Other cable channels and networks made self-promotional hay from dashing correspondents, surrendering Iraqi soldiers and masterful bombardment set to music.

What great TV we got. Too bad a lot of us were knuckleheads about the facts.

A just-released report by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy (PIPA) finds a majority of respondents have misperceptions about the war.*

The results show 48 percent incorrectly believed that evidence of links between al-Qaida and Iraq has been found; 22 percent that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; and 25 percent that world opinion favored the United States going to war with Iraq.

A walloping 60 percent overall held one or more of these misperceptions.

How did we get to be such dopes? PIPA quizzed respondents on their main sources of news information. Their findings are at right.

As you'll note, Fox's audience scored lowest. That's fodder for arguing the only place its "fair and balanced" motto really belongs is on the cover of a satirical best seller.

"The more closely you followed Fox, the more misperceptions you had," said Clay Ramsay, PIPA research director. "No other news outlet came anywhere near that."

He said that in a separate examination of viewers citing Fox as their primary source, 45 percent held all three misperceptions.

Back to that chart. While the findings for Fox may not be a surprise, second among ill-informed viewers is CBS, long considered a bastion of anti-war liberalism by subscribers to Web sites like www.ratherbiased.com.

Apparently, benightedness cuts across ideological lines, and no network or cable channel can claim its viewers are well-informed about the war's most critical issues. We're like one nation under "Duh."

According to PIPA, political position was a minor factor: Supporters of President Bush and Republicans were more likely to have misperceptions.

However, the report adds, Americans with opposing political beliefs held misperceptions, too.

Three explanations spring to mind while contemplating this equality of ignorance.

The first is that our entire for-profit television sector is engaged in a sinister conspiracy of misinformation. The industry so desperately wants favors from the White House, it suppressed facts contradictory to support for invading Iraq.

But this is too wacky. It also unfairly discounts many reports — for instance, on ABC — that pointed out our grounds for war were shaky. And poor ABC still ended up with 61 percent of its audience believing at least one of those justifications.

A more persuasive notion is that television's emotional story-telling superseded its factual reporting.

All those stories honoring soldiers who died in Iraq had a self-justifying impact. So did the endlessly replayed scenes of joyous citizens toppling statues of Saddam Hussein. So did the patriotic frills adorning network graphics and that thrilling martial music.

The end effect was a tacit endorsement of the venture.

Let's also not forget that in the case of cable channels, this position had a practical payoff: The war raised ratings.

Still, it's hard to sell a product that doesn't resonate at some level with consumers. That brings us to a third possibility: The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, created a passion for action that overcame core beliefs.

"We found a plurality of Americans felt a value conflict with the war," said PIPA's Clayton. "They had serious reservations even when they went ahead and supported it."

Clayton also volunteered a fact about respondents asked to describe how closely they follow news.

It turns out that print readers and those who listen to National Public Radio or watch PBS describe themselves as being devoted to keeping abreast of events — a profile that did not fit most commercial television viewers.

In any event, both the news media and the audience could use some self-improvement. Luckily, it's never too late; I hear there's a presidential election just 13 months away.

* The PIPA report analyzed seven nationwide polls conducted from June through September of this year.

Margin of error is 3 percent; sampling size for the seven polls was 9,611, and sampling size for in-depth analysis was 3,334 respondents.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com or 206-382-8888

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