It’s old news that many Americans are know-nothings when it comes to Iraq. According to a Washington Post poll in August, 32 percent of Americans believed it was “very likely” that “Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.” Another poll found that 20 percent of Americans believed that “Iraq did use chemical or biological weapons in the war.”Researchers at the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) in Washington have plumbed the abyss of this ignorance. Their mission: to discover why “a substantial portion of the public had a number of misperceptions that were demonstrably false [and that] have played a key role in generating and maintaining approval for the decision to go to war.”From June through September, PIPA polled 3,334 people, asking them about three of “the most egregious misperceptions.”Evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda has been found. Weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. World public opinion favored the United States going to war with Iraq.The study, “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War,” found that 60 percent of respondents held one or more of the three misperceptions—an ignorance that played into the Bush administration’s drumbeat for war. PIPA discovered that “among those with just one of the misperceptions, 53 percent supported the war—rising to 78 percent for two of the misperceptions and to 86 percent for those with all three.” Conversely, among those “with none of the three misperceptions,” 77 percent opposed the war.So why did so many Americans hold opinions that were false “or were at odds with the dominant view in the intelligence community?” the PIPA researchers wondered. Was this ignorance “a function of an individual’s source of news?”Indeed it was. After asking respondents to name their “primary source of news,” PIPA discovered that “Fox News watchers were most likely to hold misperceptions.” Conversely, an “overwhelming majority” of NPR/PBS consumers “did not have any of the three misconceptions.” (Indeed, 80 percent of Fox News viewers held one misperception and 45 percent held all three. In contrast, 23 percent of those getting their news from NPR/PBS held one misperception and only 4 percent held all three.)The researchers point out that it is true that audiences for network news shows vary as to education and political affiliation. For example, Fox viewers are more Republican while PBS/NPR consumers are better educated and more Democratic. (They also found that Republicans and those with lower education are more likely to hold misperceptions.)Yet source of news is still a determining factor. Of the Republicans who get their news from Fox, the average rate for the three key misperceptions was 54 percent, while for Republicans who get their news from PBS/NPR the average rate is 32 percent. On the Democratic side of things, 48 percent of Democrats who watch Fox believe that the United States found a direct Iraqi link to al-Qaeda, while not a single Democrat who relies on PBS/NPR believed any such nonsense.But “most striking,” say the PIPA researchers, is that among Fox News viewers, those who watch the “fair and balanced” network the most are the ones most likely to hold demonstrably unbalanced misperceptions.Steven Kull, the director of PIPA and the study’s principal investigator, says, “If people are getting misperceptions, and we can empirically demonstrate that they are, then the media has a responsibility to offset that and counteract them. The media hasn’t been diligent enough in taking into account the way that perceptions and impressions are formed around a quite significant public policy issue.”As for Fox, Kull says “research shows that Fox gives more airtime to the administration’s representatives and that may be one of the key explanations why Fox viewers have these misperceptions.”
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.