Sunday, November 23, 2014

Are Americans "Stupid" or Uninformed?

Republicans are making hay out of Jonathan Gruber's suggestion that those who crafted Obamacare thought the American public was stupid. While that was a politically incorrect (and stupid) thing to say, we've all seen enough "man on the street" interviews where too many people don't know which party controls Congress or who the current Vice President is to simply dismiss it as untrue.

But a more relevant question would be to ask whether or not the American public is "stupid" (inferring a lack of intelligence) or uninformed. That is the question sparked by this recent Gallup poll. They found that - while the violent crime rate has dropped dramatically since the early 1990's (from 80 incidents of violent crime/1000 people to 23/1000), 63% of Americans think that violent crime is increasing.

Back in the 1990's I attended a workshop on the effects of television on young people. The presenter asked the audience, "What is the purpose of television?" After a lot of responses that focused on entertainment, the presenter said that the purpose was to produce eyeballs...for advertisers. I would suggest that the same thing is now true of our news media. The perception of an increase in violent crime is likely a direct result of the old adage: "if it bleeds, it leads."

Media Matters recently produced a report showing that both cable and network news reporting on Ebola spiked in the days leading up to the 2014 midterms and then simply went to almost nothing afterwards. I don't buy the idea that this was some collusion between the media and Republicans. I suspect it had more to do with the way that fear of the disease spreading grabbed everyone's attention, and then a total elimination of coverage once it was clear that wasn't going to happen (at least not in this country). In other words, success at containing the spread of Ebola doesn't produce eyeballs.

Circling back to the subject of Obamacare, its interesting to note the effect all this has on the perceptions of the public.
Jon Krosnick, Wendy Gross, and colleagues at Stanford and Kaiser ran large surveys to measure public understanding of the ACA and how it was associated with approval of the law. They found that accurate knowledge about what’s in the bill varied with party identification: Democrats understood the most and liked the law the most, independents less, and Republicans understood still less and liked the law the least. However, attitudes were not just tribal. Within each party, the more accurate your knowledge of the law, the more you liked it.
These researchers found that in the unlikely event that the public had a perfect understanding of the law, approval of it would go from 32% to 70%. That's the price we pay for an uninformed public.

Its true that technology has allowed partisans and ideologues to chose media sources that confirm their beliefs. But those who simply want "the news" are pretty regularly fed a diet that inflames more than it informs. If you doubt that, take a look at one retired anchorman's reaction to the movie "Anchorman."

If we want this to change, we'll need everyone to think twice about what they do with their eyeballs.


  1. The misinformation business seems like it is all that is left of our mass media.

    This weekend I was really saddened to see the opening of SNL seriously mislead viewers. The skit was silent about the FACT that it is the GOP leadership in the House that is holding up the CIR Bill. Instead the ALEC member Comcast controlled show implied that PBO has trashed the Bill and is just going around Congress.

  2. Wouldn't it be nice if a group of concerned left-leaning Billionaires formed a company to buy up a bunch of media? I should think Clear Channel would be up for sale before long. Maybe if they bought the Chicago and LA papers, and chipped away at the stranglehold the conservatives have on media, it might help. But they don't seem interested. Pity.

  3. Milt Shook at and Stephanie Miller also agree there should be some progressive infrastructure. If only there was some way all of us could talk to each other......