5 Years Ago: Why Was Public So Misinformed On Facts Leading To War?
By E&P Staff
Published: March 23, 2008 11:10 AM ET
NEW YORK Five years ago today, as the U.S invasion of Iraq continued in its early stages, E&P published an article by Ari Berman, then an intern here, that examined the public attitudes on the eve of the war. He probed polls that found, on the most basic point, that roughly 2 out of 3 Americans backed an assault on Iraq.
But the attitudes driving those numbers raised serious issues about a misinformed public and the media's role. He found that a startlingly high percentage falsely believed that Saddam helped plan the 9/11 attacks or Iraqi hijackers were involved that day, and that Iraqi WMD had already been found.
An excerpt is reprinted below.
When the war dies down, editors and media analysts should catch their breath and ask themselves: How much did press coverage (or lack of coverage) contribute to the public backing for a pre-emptive invasion without the support of the United Nations?
When it came down to crunch time, the American people — as evidenced by opinion polls conducted after President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam on March 17 — supported the attack by about a 2-to-1 margin. Some of this reflected the usual rallying 'round the flag that accompanies every war, but the truth is, Bush always had strong (if nervous) popular support.
So, what motivated Americans to back their president throughout the winter of discontent — when much of the rest of the world strongly disagreed with the need for war now?
Of course, there were many reasons, ranging from partisan politics to genuine hatred and fear of the evil Saddam. But there was another key factor: Somehow, despite the media's exhaustive coverage of the post-9/11 world and the Saddam threat, a very large segment of the American public remained un- or misinformed about key issues related to the Iraqi crisis. Let's look at a few recent polls.
In a Jan. 7 Knight Ridder/Princeton Research poll, 44% of respondents said they thought "most" or "some" of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were Iraqi citizens. Only 17% of those polled offered the correct answer: none. This was remarkable in light of the fact that, in the weeks after 9/11, few Americans identified Iraqis among the culprits. So the level of awareness on this issue actually plunged as time passed. Is it possible the media failed to give this appropriate attention?
In the same sample, 41% said that Iraq already possessed nuclear weapons, which not even the Bush administration claimed. Despite being far off base in crucial areas, 66% of respondents claimed to have a "good understanding" of the arguments for and against going to war with Iraq.
Then, a Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations survey released Feb. 20 found that nearly two-thirds of those polled believed that U.N. weapons inspectors had "found proof that Iraq is trying to hide weapons of mass destruction." Neither Hans Blix nor Mohamed ElBaradei ever said they found proof of this.
The same survey found that 57% of those polled believed Saddam Hussein helped terrorists involved with the 9/11 attacks, a claim the Bush team had abandoned. A March 7-9 New York Times/CBS News Poll showed that 45% of interviewees agreed that "Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks," and a March 14-15 CNN/USA Today/ Gallup poll found this apparently mistaken notion holding firm at 51%.
The significance of this is suggested by the finding, in the same survey, that 32% of those supporting an attack cited Saddam's alleged involvement in supporting terrorists as the "main reason" for endorsing invasion. Another 43% said it was "one reason."
Knowing this was a crucial element of his support — even though he could not prove the 9/11 connection — the president nevertheless tried to bolster the link. Bush mentioned 9/11 eight times during his March 6 prime-time news conference, linking it with Saddam Hussein "often in the same breath," Linda Feldmann of The Christian Science Monitor observed last week. "Bush never pinned the blame for the [9/11] attacks directly on the Iraqi president," Feldmann wrote. "Still, the overall effect was to reinforce an impression that persists among much of the American public."
Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center, told me last week: "It's very rare to find a perception that's been so disputed by experts yet firmly held by the public. There's almost nothing the public doesn't believe about Saddam Hussein."
The question, again, is: Did the press do a solid enough job in informing the public about the key contested issues?
"If the U.S. war against Iraq goes well, then the Bush administration is likely not to face questions about the way it sold the war," Feldmann conceded. "But if war and its aftermath go badly, then the administration could be under fire." Newspapers could be, too.