Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Silenced Majority

I know I often conjecture about the disparity of concerns between the media and the American people, often without any evidence save the nagging sense that the D.C. media's preoccupation with reporting on the trivialities of political strategy has indirectly contributed to the series of giant pickles we now find ourselves facing as a nation. The Andrea Mitchells and Chris Matthews are the Neros of our time, fiddling as the world--in some cases literally--burns.

There was a great article in a Times blog about the disconnect between the Washington media and the general populace and it manifests itself every time a public figure is badgered to explain himself after criticizing Bush and his administration. As this Times piece points out, the recent upbraidal of Jimmy Carter seemed to be a case of D.C. media imposing cocktail party decorum:
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."

This guy is absolutely right. I'm no presidential scholar, but I seem to recall reading many times of Teddy Roosevelt's vocieferous criticism of William Howard Taft's leadership. Anyway, getting in a tizzy over whether an ex-president criticizes a sitting president sanctions the office as a regal post where all former officeholders are loyal to the myth of the office, which runs counter to the fundmanetal tenets of this lower-case republican nation.

The recent acceding of the Democrats to the timetable-free Bush war funding bill is a prime example of the party being influenced by the popular though incorrect wisdom that their original war funding bill would be viewed as taking resources away from frontline troops. The writer offers a plausible exegis on the source of the Democrats dissonance and the resulting contrition it provokes on their part to the supremely unpopular Bush administration.

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.
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.
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 <> .

As the title suggests, there is as much a silent majority today as there was back when Nixon first uttered the powerful phrase at the height of the Vietnam War, but this majority is even more silenced by the D.C. media's insistence upon what concerns the "average American." If you've listened to members of the mainstream media over the years, the average American has not been too concerned with the Downing Street Memo, the Abramoff scandal, the Libby conviction, the U.S. Attorneys firings, ad infinitum. Using this logic, some members of the media fail to report on any of these incidents in a meaningful way and instead analyze the culpabilty of the players as a question of how well they spin their innocence. As a result, the media has shirked its duty to bring attention to the plagues to a democratic society--venality and autocracy--by claiming unjustifiably that the American people are too stupid to care.


Michael Blaine said...

Jimmy Carter was quite right to criticize the Bush administration, whose nefarious influence must be counteracted at nearly every turn. Indeed, Carter should have started earlier and been doing it a lot more frequently. Now, if only Bush's own dad would openly condemn his kid's non-pareil bungling and moral failings, we'd really have something.

As for the media, they -- along with the self-serving and craven duopoly of major political parties -- are a major contributorto our nation's dysfunctionality. Last night, I saw Chris Matthews advertising his coverage of the '08 presisential election this way: "Sex . . . Secrets . . . Scandal!" I wish I were, but I am not kidding. Those words were narrated and flashed across the screen during an ad for Matthews' show. How condescending and corrosive!

Michael Blaine

Michael Blaine said...

My apologies for the spelling errors and redundancies above.

In any case Matthews' producers ostensibly thought the piece was funny, but what they really revealed is their belief that is a story doesn't have those three S's the public will not pay attention -- how wrong they are, and how crass.