Friday, December 09, 2005

Media sickness

A friend and colleague of mine called my attention to a Los Angeles times article that had as its headline "Most in U.S. Say Torture Can Be Just", quoting an AP-Ipsos poll that reputedly stated that 61% of Americans polled agreed that torture is justified on at least rare occasions. The Times merely picked this story up off the AP wire, although they created their own headline. ABC News also ran this story on their website, although their headline was a bit less inflammatory: "AP Poll: Most Say Torture OK in Rare Cases". After seeing this story, I was all set to lambaste Smirky and his pals for leading this country into disregarding its own Bill of Rights (remember that? We're not supposed to allow "cruel and unusual punishment"?), but in order to get my facts right, I went to the poll itself to get the correct numbers.
What the poll actually reveals, if anyone were to take the minute or two to look at it objectively, is that the US respondents are not that far out of line on the issue from what those surveyed in the other 8 countries said, and that the 61% figure used by the AP writer (Will Lester) is extraordinarily misleading. The full breakdown for the US survey was that 11% felt that "torture against suspected terrorists" can "often" be justified, 27% thought "sometimes", 23% said "rarely", and 36% responded "never". And while our figures as a whole do not reflect favorably upon our bloodthirstiness and disregard for human rights in comparison to the other countries polled, the AP writer has chosen an odd way to present the results, doncha think?
Another, more usual, method (combining the results of the "top" and "bottom" two responses) of reading and reporting the same survey results would have been that "59% of US interviewees think that torture is only justifiable in rare circumstances, and a plurality of those surveyed believe it is never justified". How different would the body of a story with that lede be from what we actually saw? Granted, an objective observer would also point out that the only other countries' citizens that reported as low a figure were Mexico (at 58%) and South Korea (perhaps not surprisingly the lowest, at 43%)--not exactly the countries with which most Americans would want to be compared; the lowest European country was France (!), at 65% using this method.
So the question becomes, why did Lester choose to combine the top 3 responses? Is the person who says torture is only "rarely" justified really similar to a person who believes torture is ok "often"? Those seem to me to actually be diametrically opposed responses. What is the effect of Lester's method and report on the reader? In my opinion, by stating that 61% approve torture, Lester is trying to do a number of things: 1) downplay the actual revulsion most Americans actually have to Dick Cheney's avowed support for torture; 2) convince those who do support torture that they are in the majority, making it even more unlikely that they should change their minds; and 3) giving the loons on the right wing "evidence" that they are in the mainstream of public opinion, so that they can hammer away at those who disagree with them with claims of merely following the public's lead on the issue.
The next question becomes, why did these mainstream media editors simply affix their own headlines to a spurious report instead of doing the 5 minutes of digging I did to find out the truth of the poll numbers? Those of us on the left (and those on the right as well, who have been taking advantage of this fact for a quarter of a century) who have been paying attention already know the answer to that--the mainstream media has either become shills for the Radical Right or are simply filled with lazy "journalists" unwilling to do their jobs. Whichever of those two is correct bespeaks volumes about the downfall of democracy in this country, since most people are too busy to do the digging for the truth themselves and have relied on the media to perform their role. Trusting the mainstream to report the truth has become too dangerous for us; we have been misled by them for too long, and now people are dying because of it. Will even more people now be tortured because of it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:49 PM  
Blogger bryduck said...

Is that a good "uh-huh", or a querulous one?

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good one (of course).

11:16 AM  

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