Something seems a little out of whack between the mainstream media and the American people. Take the arguments of the past few days over former President Jimmy Carter’s remarks about the Bush administration and the consequences of its particular brand of foreign policy. Carter didn’t attack President Bush personally, but said that “as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history,” which can’t really be too far out of line with what many Americans think.
In coverage typical of much of the media, however, NBC Nightly News asked whether Carter had broken “an unwritten rule when commenting on the current president,” and portrayed Carter’s words — unfairly it seems — as a personal attack on President Bush. Fox News called it “unprecedented.” Yet as an article in this newspaper on Tuesday pointed out, “presidential scholars roll their eyes at the notion that former presidents do not speak ill of current ones.”
The pattern is familiar. Polls show that most Americans want our government to stop its unilateral swaggering, and to try to solve our differences with other nations through diplomacy. In early April, for example, when the speaker of the House, the Democrat Nancy Pelosi, visited Syria and met with President Bashar al-Assad, a poll had 64 percent of Americans in favor of negotiations with the Syrians. Yet this didn’t stop an outpouring of media alarm.
A number of CNN broadcasts — including one showing Pelosi with a head scarf beside the title “Talking with Terrorists?” — failed even to mention that several Republican congressmen had met with Assad two days before Pelosi did. The conventional wisdom on the principal television talk shows was that Pelosi had “messed up on this one” (in the words of NBC’s Matt Lauer), and that she and the Democrats would pay dearly for it.
So it must have been a great surprise when Pelosi’s approval ratings stayed basically the same after her visit, or actually went up a little.
Or take the matter of the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Most media figures seem to consider the very idea as issuing from the unhinged imaginations of a lunatic fringe. But according to a recent poll, 39 percent of Americans in fact support it, including 42 percent of independents.
A common explanation of this tendency toward distortion is that the beltway media has attended a few too many White House Correspondents’ Dinners and so cannot possibly cover the administration with anything approaching objectivity. No doubt the Republicans’ notoriously well-organized efforts in casting the media as having a “liberal bias” also have their intended effect in suppressing criticism.
But I wonder whether this media distortion also persists because it doesn’t meet with enough criticism, and if that’s partially because many Americans think that what they see in the major political media reflects what most other Americans really think — when actually it often doesn’t.
Psychologists coined the term “pluralistic ignorance” in the 1930s to refer to this type of misperception — more a social than an individual phenomenon — to which even smart people might fall victim. A study back then had surprisingly found that most kids in an all-white fraternity were privately in favor of admitting black members, though most assumed, wrongly, that their personal views were greatly in the minority. Natural temerity made each individual assume that he was the lone oddball.
A similar effect is common today on university campuses, where many students think that most other students are typically inclined to drink more than they themselves would wish to; researchers have found that many students indeed drink more to fit in with what they perceive to be the drinking norm, even though it really isn’t the norm. The result is an amplification of a minority view, which comes to seem like the majority view.
In pluralistic ignorance, as described by researchers Hubert O’Gorman and Stephen Garry in a 1976 paper published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “moral principles with relatively little popular support may exert considerable influence because they are mistakenly thought to represent the views of the majority, while normative imperatives actually favored by the majority may carry less weight because they are erroneously attributed to a minority.”
What is especially disturbing about the process is that it lends itself to control by the noisiest and most visible. Psychologists have noted that students who are the heaviest drinkers, for example, tend to speak out most strongly against proposed measures to curb drinking, and act as “subculture custodians” in support of their own minority views. Their strong vocalization can produce “false consensus” against such measures, as others, who think they’re part of the minority, keep quiet. As a consequence, the extremists gain influence out of all proportion to their numbers, while the views of the silent majority end up being suppressed. (The United States Department of Education has a brief page on the main ideas here.)
Think of the proposal to put a timetable on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, supported, the latest poll says, by 60 percent of Americans, but dropped Tuesday from the latest war funding bill.
Over the past couple months, Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com has done a superb job of documenting what certainly seems like it might be a case of pluralistic ignorance among the major political media, many (though certainly not all) of whom often seem to act as “subculture custodians” of their own amplified minority views. Routinely, it seems, views that get expressed and presented as majority views aren’t really that at all.
In a typical example in March, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported that most Americans wanted to pardon Scooter Libby, saying that the polling “indicates that most people think, in fact, that he should be pardoned, Scooter Libby should be pardoned.” In fact, polls showed that only 18 percent then favored a pardon.
Mitchell committed a similar error in April, claiming that polling showed Nancy Pelosi to be unpopular with the American people, her approval rating being as low as the dismal numbers of former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert just before the 2006 November elections. But in fact the polls showed Pelosi’s approval standing at about 50 percent, while Hastert’s had been 22 percent.
As most people get their news from the major outlets, these distortions — however they occur, whether intentionally or through some more innocuous pro
ss of filtering — almost certainly translate into a strongly distorted image in peoples’ minds of what most people across the country think. They contribute to making mainstream Americans feel as if they’re probably not mainstream, which in turn may make them less likely to voice their opinions.
One of the most common examples of pluralistic ignorance, of course, takes place in the classroom, where a teacher has just finished a dull and completely incomprehensible lecture, and asks if there are any questions. No hands go up, as everyone feels like the lone fool, even though no student actually understood a single word. It takes guts, of course, to admit total ignorance when you might just be the only one.
Last year, author Kristina Borjesson interviewed 21 prominent journalists for her book “Feet to the Fire,” about the run-up to the Iraq War. Her most notable impression was this:
“The thing that I found really profound was that there really was no consensus among this nation’s top messengers about why we went to war. [War is the] most extreme activity a nation can engage in, and if they weren’t clear about it, that means the public wasn’t necessarily clear about the real reasons. And I still don’t think the American people are clear about it.”
Yet in the classroom of our democracy, at least for many in the media, it still seems impolitic — or at least a little too risky — to raise one’s hand.