Politicians lie: We know it and we don’t care

This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 17, 2010.

Survey: The public gets that most political ads are bogus, but people still believe things that are false

A new study about media misinformation and media users’ ignorance is only the latest wakeup call for anyone who worries that the American press has gone badly astray. From the summary of “Misinformation and the 2010 Election” comes this bottom line:

  • The public is thoroughly cynical about political campaign advertising.
  • Much of the public is misinformed about major issues.
  • Fox News viewers are especially prone to believing things that are not true.

The report, from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to national affairs and the media. We have an information crisis. Influence peddlers and opinion launderers can now spend unlimited amounts of money, much of it raised from anonymous sources, to push political issues and candidates. A system that has absolutely no accountability is almost guaranteed to become a sewer, and this one certainly has.

Meanwhile, “news” outlets are becoming not just advocates but outright partisans in the worst sense of the term. They treat policy as war, and in wars the truth comes second to winning.

In some respects, the survey is heartening. Nine in 10 voters believed they’d seen ads that were misleading or false, and more than half of the voters thought such ads were a frequent occurrence — and that the misinformation was accelerating. Why is this good news? Because the more skeptical people become about political ads, the more likely they are to disbelieve all political ads. It’s the only rational approach at this point, given our political system’s unwillingness to address the poison it spews, and I hope that by 2012 the public will have a universal belief that any political advertisement they see is probably a lie.

It’s also no surprise that people are not well informed. This is partly due to a long-standing cultural laziness in America, when for years it didn’t much affect peoples’ lives if what they “knew” was true or false. But the consequences for being wrong are growing, and can be catastrophic, such as going to war based on lies.

The media’s role is key. Misinformation doesn’t usually start with journalists, but they spread it. Some spread misinformation through journalistic practices — such as getting two sides to stories when one side is lying outright — that should shame the profession. Others spread it in more sleazy ways.

I haven’t seen a word about this important survey in any of the traditional media, and as New York University’s Jay Rosen notes, there’s no indication that Big Media’s own polling operations want to touch the topic of whether their audiences are misinformed. But I wish some of the online commentary was less gleeful about the Fox News data.

I have no brief for Fox or its approach; its old slogan of “fair and balanced” has always struck me as two lies in three words. But it’s counterproductive, not to mention wrong, to call Fox viewers “stupid,” as Alternet did in this piece. Watching Fox doesn’t make anyone stupid, even if it does tend to make viewers less informed about reality. Insulting people will never help persuade them, and tends to harden their belief that they’re right in the first place.


What’s clear, based on studies like the Maryland report, is that we have a major media-education task ahead of us. And part of that job is going to be persuading those of us who have been part of a passive audience to become active consumers and participants in media. I’ve just published a new book, called Mediactive, which aims to further that goal. I’ll be posting excerpts from the book here early next month.

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