|Number 132||November 16, 2001|
Thank you to the many of you who have sent in to The Nation magazine your nomination of Nygaard Notes as a "Favorite Media Source." You're making me blush! The rest of you, it is not too late; they are accepting letters until November 21. See the special insert this week for details on how to do it.
While there are not an enormous number of items in the news specifically about opinion polls, their influence is immense. Who doesn't know that the "public approval" of the President is hovering around 90 percent since September 11th? This comes from "the polls." And when the President speaks of "maintaining support" for his policies, the idea that there is support comes from "the polls." How do those polls work? That's what we look at this week.
This is a longer Nygaard Notes than usual, mostly because I wanted to attach the complete set of responses to the Gallup International survey that is the subject of article #5 this week. I have attached it as a Word document. If you have trouble reading this document, write me and I'll send it to you in another format. (I've never attached anything to Nygaard Notes before, so I hope it works.) I focused on only the crucial question about (lack of) support for the U.S. attack, but a couple of the other questions are thought-provoking, as well. You can view the poll online at http://www.gallup-international.com/terrorismpoll_figures.htm.
Hello to all the new subscribers this week. I hope you get the jokes I insert when least expected!
In peace and awareness,
Here's my favorite part of what the National Council on Public Polls says on their website (http://www.pollingreport.com/ncpp.htm) in answer to the question: "Can wording of questions bias poll results?"
The last thing you would want to do is to "remind" someone of reality before you ask their opinion about it. Eh?
For those of you who haven't yet looked at last week's Notes, or just haven't gotten around to sending off your letter, here is the text of the call published in The Nation magazine this week. Here are the directions, as printed in The Nation this week:
Note that the deadline is just days away, so SEND IN YOUR LETTER NOW, if you are so moved. Thanks for the support!
I will give a free one-year gift subscription to Z Magazine to the first 5 Nygaard Notes readers who email me and give me their name and address.
I first extended this offer in 1999, less than 9 months after Nygaard Notes began publishing. I said it was ridiculous then, and I still think it is ridiculous, because Nygaard Notes has some sort of reputation to uphold (I hope) and a shameless self-promoting gift offer doesn't exactly fit the image of commercial-free, unencumbered information and analysis. Does it?
But, as I say every year, this is not a shameless promotion, it's just your good luck! Here's the explanation:
Every year lately the Z Magazine people send out a mailing challenging current subscribers to give multiple gift subscriptions for a steep discount. I am happy to do this, because I want the magazine to survive, and because I think most readers of Nygaard Notes would enjoy receiving Z every month. I make an annual contribution to Z anyway.
It is very difficult for a non-commercial media outlet to survive in 21st-century America. (I discussed this issue in some depth in NN #23, "Media in the Free Market.") Some readers may remember the radical newsweekly The Guardian, out of NYC. It was excellent, and managed to survive for over 40 years without corporate advertising dollars, until its sad demise in 1989. Z Magazine, which also refrains from feeding at the corporate advertising trough, faces similar financial stress (although it is not on the verge of bankruptcy at the moment, as far as I know.)
For those who have not seen it, Z is an activist-oriented monthly magazine with a broad focus, publishing up-to-the-minute reports from activists from all parts of the country, working in many areas with many different types of people. They regularly publish people like Holly Sklar and Robin Hahnel on economics, Edward Herman on media, Michael Bronski on GLBT topics, Jeremy Brecher on labor, Sandy Carter on music, and Noam Chomsky on everything, in addition to many articles from less well-known people working "in the trenches."
The good folks at Z also maintain an excellent website, "ZNet," which I have often recommended to NN readers for the best information about current events. Their collection of essays and articles on goings-on since September 11th is probably the best anywhere. Again, I encourage you to check it out and see what's there. http://www.zmag.org/ZNETTOPnoanimation.html.
So, although it still sounds ridiculous every time I say it: Send in your name and address soon, and WIN!
I would like to recommend an event happening this coming Monday, November 19th, here in my own neighborhood in Minneapolis. The wonderful activist group WAMM (Women Against Military Madness) is presenting, as part of it's "Third Monday Movie" series, the 25-minute documentary "Constructing Public Opinion." This video comes from the folks at the Media Education Foundation, who tell us that the video "investigates how the media present news and create polls in a manner that often misleads the public, creating false consensus."
Since this week's edition of the Notes is about opinion polls, propaganda, and informed consent, the timing could not be better for Nygaard Notes readers. Following the video, there will be a discussion of local and national media coverage of Sept 11th and the war in Afghanistan. The event will occur at St. Martin's Table, at Riverside Avenue and 20th Avenue, and begins with a dinner at 6 pm (video at 6:30). For more information, call WAMM at 612-827-5364.
Last week's Nygaard Notes "Quote" of the Week was the lead headline from the New York Times ("All the News That's Fit to Print") of November 6, 2001, which read: "U.S. Tries to Sway Worldwide Opinion in Favor of War." Although I think it stands alone as a rather remarkable quotation, there is another story lurking just behind the headline that is worth looking at.
The lead paragraph of that story asserted that the Bush administration is "worried that public opinion abroad has turned against the American military campaign in Afghanistan." Furthermore, the Times tells us, "reports that civilians have been bombed have led to a measurable drop in European support for the American-led campaign."
This was supposed to explain why the administration "is making a major effort to take its case to the foreign—and especially Islamic—news media."
Leave aside for the moment the remarkable phenomenon of the government of one country openly trying to propagandize through the news media around the world. That's hardly news, although its worth thinking about how and why our government might be going about such a task.
When we read about "public opinion abroad" that is now "turning against the military campaign" (similar statements can be found in various reports from early November), the implication is clear: that the people of the world have, up until recently, been in support of the U.S. war stance. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Propaganda (a.k.a. British Prime Minister) Tony Blair stated the official line quite plainly upon arriving in the U.S. on the day the bombing began, asserting that "international support for the campaign is undiminished," according to press reports in the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!). While there was and likely remains worldwide support for a strong response of some sort to the terrorist attacks ("We have to do something!"), there has not been and does not appear to be much support at all for a military response, despite the "spin" that the Bush-Blair alliance has attempted to place on it.
The Secret Survey
Unbeknownst to most Americans, not having been reported in any of the daily newspapers of this great nation, the Gallup Organization actually did a survey of the citizens of 37 countries around the world at the end of September, asking the following straightforward question:
This extensive survey—the only significant attempt to gauge "public opinion abroad" that I know of—revealed that an overwhelming majority of the world's citizens rejected the idea of a military response to the crimes of September 11th, preferring instead a judicial response. Remember, this survey was done at the end of September (survey results were released on September 25th), just days after the President had indicated that the United States was planning a military response.
The Gallup survey showed, for example, that 64 percent of the citizens of the Czech Republic were opposed to a military response to terror. And that was as good as it got for the Bush administration in Europe. The citizens of every other European country were opposed even more strongly to the favored U.S. strategy, by margins ranging from 67 percent in NATO ally France to 87 percent in Switzerland and 88 percent in Greece.
The overwhelming majority of the surveyed population outside of Europe also rejected the military response to terror, by percentages along the lines of 94 percent in Mexico, 85 percent in Colombia, 75 percent in South Africa, and 84 percent in Zimbabwe.
In only two of the 37 countries did a strong majority of the citizens surveyed support a military response. One was India, with complex geopolitical realities in the region to consider. The other was Israel, the leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world and with its own long history of responding militarily to terror attacks. The third and final country in which a majority supported the U.S. government's plans to go to war—and this by a small majority of 54 percent—was the United States itself.
In summary, then, just two weeks before the United States launched its ill-fated military attack on perhaps the weakest country in the world, somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the world's population, as near as we can figure, opposed that attack. And now we read in the papers that the U.S. administration's main concern is to maintain "international support" for its war. This is a major propaganda victory, and if it takes Nygaard Notes to tell you this, then consider how powerful that propaganda system must be.
Addendum: I said near the beginning of this essay that the results of this survey had not been reported in any of the daily newspapers in America. Not technically true. There was one exception, that being the Omaha World-Herald. True, their 166-word brief completely misrepresented the findings, claiming that the poll "indicates a heartening degree of support for the United States," but at least they reported something. No other U.S. paper said a word, according to my search of the Lexis-Nexis database for the period.
The science of polling is a complex one, and I am no expert. Still, readers should know that I myself worked as a Gallup pollster many years ago, trudging door-to-door in the distant suburbs, asking people such things as whether they approved or disapproved of the way the President was handling his job. (I also asked them what brand of beer they thought of when they saw Clydesdale horses; conducting such market research was a large part of the job in those days, and I imagine it still is.)
Sitting in people's kitchens with my clipboard in hand, I saw for myself some of the contradictions involved in the polling process. Most major polls—notwithstanding its obligatory "Don't know/No opinion" option—are composed of multiple-choice questions. Perhaps the most well-known question in our national polls is the one mentioned above, about approval of the President. Even on this point, my experience was that many people would hesitate and ask for a chance to inject some complexity into the simple either/or equation. For example, they might say, "Well, I like what he's doing on so-and-so, but I can't understand why he is doing such-and-such." Sorry! No room for that sort of wishy-washy answer! How I wished I could offer not two, but three options: "I approve," "I disapprove," and "It's not that simple, you knucklehead!"
Rather than see themselves consigned to the netherworld of "Don't Know/No Opinion," most people would reluctantly place themselves into one of the "pro" or "con" camps. ( "OK, I guess I approve...") And thus are the shifting sands of public approval molded into the concrete reality of headlines.
The Polls Since 911
Just before the bombs started falling, the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll asked Americans, "Looking ahead, would you favor or oppose the United States taking additional direct military action in Afghanistan if Afghan civilians are killed as a result of the military action?" A chilling 65 percent favored having the U.S. warplanes start attacking, and damn the innocents.
Since the early post-September 11th days, the polls have been morphing and changing from week to week. For example, for the first 5 weeks or so, some of the major polls would ask questions about civilian casualties, like the one above. The Newsweek Poll asked on September 20th if respondents "would favor or oppose attacking people suspected of terrorism against the U.S. like Osama bin Laden EVEN IF we're not sure they're responsible for what happened this week?" [emphasis in original]. A majority of Americans said yes, indeed, they supported attacking somebody.
A couple of other early polls (L.A. Times and Newsweek) asked if Americans preferred the option of "bringing [bin Laden] to trial in the United States" instead of taking military action. 69 percent preferred to go with the bombs.
In only one poll that I have been able to find (the Harris Poll of September 19-24) was there any mention of the United Nations, and that was simply to ask if people thought it might be "important" that we "get the support" of that pre-existing international coalition against terror, not whether it might be important to cooperate with the rest of the world rather than attempt to dominate it.
I have looked through dozens of national polls, searching for any question asking the public what they think of the large body of existing international law which might not only help "support" the United States in its response to terrorism, but might even guide its response or (this is the inconceivable part) place some limits on it. No such questions were found. The deeply-held belief evidenced by the lack of such questions—that is, the belief in the right of the United States to do whatever it wants in the world—is a belief held only by unimaginative minds, or imperialist ones.
Many people believe that the United States should treat the September 11th attacks as crimes against humanity rather than as acts of war, and thus choose to follow the various pre-defined rules of response in such cases. Such people will not register in the polls, instead finding themselves residing in the land of "Don't Know/No Opinion." Even to get into that less-than-prestigious region, the unpopular idea would have to occur to the respondent, and they would have to be pretty fiercely independent in order to cling to such an unorthodox view in the heart of the American Empire.
Do Know/Strong Opinion
As for the question of the mass starvation of innocent Afghans likely to occur as a result of the actions of our government, apparently nobody considers the question worth asking. Speaking of the plight of the Afghan refugees, writer George Monbiot says, "The victims are invisible, their language incomprehensible, so the world neither knows nor cares." Such words may have seemed harsh to readers of the London Guardian when they appeared on September 25th but, in the absence of any survey even being conducted on the question—let alone reported or discussed—his point seems tragically valid.
Despite the fact that many polls appear to show a profound callousness and indifference on the part of my fellow Americans in regard to the suffering of millions of human beings in another part of the world, I refuse to believe that we really don't care. These same Americans rushed to blood banks, ran up the stairs of burning buildings, and volunteered in innumerable ways to help the victims of violence on September 11th. I believe that, asked the proper questions, "the polls" would uncover a currently-invisible compassion among Americans.
Imagine the Gallup Poll asking Americans a question like this: "Do you approve or disapprove of your government attacking Afghanistan if that attack, as expected, brings about the deaths of between one hundred thousand and 5 million people who are no more guilty than the people killed in New York and Washington on September 11th?" I'd like to see the numbers on that one. How many would "not know?" How many would have "no opinion?"
This, then, is what activists need to keep in our vision as we struggle through these dark times. We have to believe that, given the opportunity to imagine alternatives, and given a voice through popular organization and independent media, the American people would be able to express a bigger, more meaningful compassion. Perhaps that compassion would be powerful enough to bring our warplanes out of the sky and replace them with food caravans and, ultimately, with an entirely new role for the United States in the world.
You can download the complete set of responses to the Gallup International survey (described above) in Microsoft Word format by clicking here. If you have trouble reading this document, write me and I'll send it to you in another format.
You can also view the poll online at http://www.gallup-international.com/terrorismpoll_figures.htm.