The staggering ignorance of the public on Iran
Feb 22, 2012

The staggering ignorance of the public on Iran

A new CBS/Opinion Research poll indicates that 71% of Americans believe that Iran already has a nuclear weapon. Sigh. While it certainly should not be a surprise anymore given numerous past polling of a similar level of absurdity, it is still nonetheless disheartening. For the record, it is absolutely false that Iran has a nuclear weapon, as has been extensively confirmed by top US and Israeli military officials.

It is not immediately clear what the mechanism is that results in this poll. It isn't the case that there is a prominent group suggesting this falsehood (like was the case with Iraq having WMDs). Politicians on both sides of the debate, top government officials, and more or less the entire media class presents the Iran story in the same framing: that action must be taken to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Ergo, it currently does not have one. There isn't debate about this publicly, there isn't controversy with some leaders pushing it, and it is almost entirely antithetical to the core narrative that is being described in the media.

Further, it isn't the case that the public just doesn't pay attention to news and the news media. They certainly do, with the average American spending upwards of seventy minutes daily consuming various forms of news. 68% of Americans follow national news "closely", 56% for international news. The Iran story is the singular biggest international story that gets discussed in the US, and has been for a long time. It is hard to follow purely domestic politics without it being a part of it as well given the overlap of domestic discussing it. For instance, it has been a repeated and core discussion in the GOP Presidential debates which have been widely watched. So people are watching news, and the news is clearly covering that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and yet the 71% figure remains.

Can it be so simplistic as the fact that Americans hear the words 'Iran' and 'Nuclear Weapons' together in the same sentence so frequently they just form an equivalence between them?
Part of this issue is that there is an enormous build up towards war and aggression going on that is being pushed by large segments of the media and political classes. The demagoguery of Iran is extensive; Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei are consistently portrayed as the ultimate evil. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister uses holocaust rhetoric to describe them. So the idea that Iran is very bad and needs to be stopped is quite clear in the media - it is this very narrative which I attempt to dispel on this blog. Perhaps the explanation for the discrepancy is that many people have internalized the idea that Iran is bad and there is something to do with nuclear weapons, thus they assume without much consideration that the Iranians have nuclear weapons.

Years after the Iraq war started, it is now something of an acknowledged national embarrassment that the country was so easily duped into following the war drums being beat. Clearly there was no WMDs and, further, there never was legitimate reason to believe that there was. One might have hoped that Americans would have learned their mistake and now would be especially dubious about propped up claims of the threats allegedly posed by other countries. Apparently not.

One interesting aspect is that while the Obama does say belligerent things (leaving "all options on the table" is just a euphemism for saying "we may attack you militarily"), the Republican candidates are pushing far harder for war. Unlike the Iraq pre-war buildup where the US administration dominated the push for war and the media almost subserviently followed along, this time it is in large part the media leading the charge. The Obama administration has actually tried to walk back some its rhetoric, chastising Israel's belligerence publicly.

The entire point of the media is to inform the public. Ultimately, when the public is as poorly informed as it clearly is, a large chunk of responsibility must be shouldered by the media who is supposed to be informing them. If they cannot even convey effectively the most basic of facts about Iran, it is hard to imagine how a reasoned debate on the subject can even occur in the US.

I don't know if the US government will decide to engage in a military action against Iran. However, if they do decide to do this, it should be recognized how easy it will be to get the American public on board and on their side. In fact, they already are.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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The Mound of Sound said...

"The entire point of the media is to inform the public." Who ever gave you that idea? Even Mark Twain, himself a newspaper veteran, observed, "Those who don't read newspapers are uninformed. Those who do are misinformed."

Hell, Sarah Palin believed, until McCain's handlers got to her in mid-2008, that Saddam was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Three years after Saddam was toppled and the US had admitted there were no WMDs to be found, 60% of FOX viewers believed such weapons had indeed been discovered in Iraq.

An overwhelming majority of Tea Partiers believe Obama has raised their taxes when, in reality, he's lowered their taxes.

Americans have become a people on gullibility cruise control.

bazie said...

Thanks for those stats - it truly is astounding the level of ignorance found in society. At least with the Tea Party taxes, there is an entire half of the political spectrum telling them Obama has raised there taxes so it makes a little bit of sense. Here, nobody is suggesting in the political and media classes that Iran already has a nuke, yet they believe even that!

I mean the media comment more normatively than descriptively. That is, the entire point of the media OUGHT to be to inform the public. You are of course correct that it systematically fails at doing so in many ways that I describe in quite some length on this blog.

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