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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

TV News Makes You Dumb

Person with TV for headThe term "harsh interrogation techniques" is pure PR. Calling torture anything other than torture is almost an acknowledgement of criminality. It's like calling bank robbery "expedited withdrawal." You don't make up a fancy new term for something if there's nothing wrong with the old one. And what's wrong with the old term is that it describes a crime.

Likewise, the bankrobber doesn't get to argue that his program of expedited withdrawal works. The same should go for a program of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Of course, torture doesn't work. The Bush administration's torture program turned up almost no useful intelligence and most interrogation experts agree that that information would almost certainly have been obtained without torture. Where the Bush administration turned to waterboarding and other forms of torture to interview terrorists, interrogators during WWII played chess with captured Nazis -- literally. If that didn't work, they tried ping pong. "We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture," Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, once told the Washington Post." [Link via Crooks and Liars]

"During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone," agreed fellow interrogator George Frenkel. "We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I'm proud to say I never compromised my humanity." But the Bush administration -- with some help of a media that refuses to be truthful, instead of merely factual -- has certainly compromised ours. A new headline at the Gallup website reads, "Slim Majority Wants Bush-Era Interrogations Investigated: Majority says use of harsh techniques on terrorism suspects was justified."

After reading that, I was about ready to give up on my fellow citizens. Wouldn't any torturing banana republic say torture was justified? Why didn't people see that we've compromised what it means to be American with torture?

Then I read a damned good point -- on Twitter. Usually, 140 characters isn't enough to make a solid and rational argument, but Editor and Publisher's Greg Mitchell posted one of the smartest observations I'd seen on the service for a good, long time. "Another Gallup poll on 'harsh' interrogation," he wrote. "Ignore all polls on this subject until they use the word 'torture.' Otherwise: meaningless."

My reaction was "now there's a damned good point." When you use the public relations term for torture, you aren't actually asking people if they think torture's OK. You're asking them if they approve of some nonexistent thing that they've been lied to about by the Bush administration. The first paragraph of Gallup's report reads:

A new Gallup Poll finds 51% of Americans in favor and 42% opposed to an investigation into the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects during the Bush administration. At the same time, 55% of Americans believe in retrospect that the use of the interrogation techniques was justified, while only 36% say it was not. Notably, a majority of those following the news about this matter "very closely" oppose an investigation and think the methods were justified.

In the entire report, the word "torture" comes up exactly once -- in the familiar "techniques that some call torture" format favored by the media. Never mind that those "some" that call them torture include US and international law.

How many of the respondents thought, "Well, as long as it's not actually torture," when they gave their answers? It's impossible to know. But the wording of the questions is clearly biased toward pro-Bush side of the argument.

Worse is the fact that the more informed you think you are, the less you actually know. 61% who said they were "following the story closely" thought these fantasical "harsh interrogation techniques" were sometimes justified and 58% of that same group oppose investigations. Given the state of our media, which relies on a less than informative "two sides to every story" reporting, this should come as no surprised. The media consistently refuses to call torture torture, opting instead for the Bush administration's invented term of "harsh interrogation techniques." What we can come away with here is that the more you watch mainstream media, the less informed you become.

This isn't the first time a similar failure of the media has come up. In 2003, the Program on International Policy (PIPA) at the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks released a study showing that the less you knew about the arguments for invading Iraq, the more likely you were to support the invasion.

Even more interesting:

The polling, conducted by the Program on International Policy (PIPA) at the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks, also reveals that the frequency of these misperceptions varies significantly according to individuals' primary source of news. Those who primarily watch FOX News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions, while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch PBS are significantly less likely.

In other words, the more you watched FOX News, the less you actually knew. And it went right down through all the TV networks. The study measured how many people believed 3 common misconceptions -- Saddam was allied with al Qaeda, that WMD had actually been found in Iraq, and that world public opinion was in favor of invading. 80% of people who got their news primarily from FOX news believed at least one of these myths, followed by 71% with CBS, 61% wth ABC, 55% for NBC and CNN, 47% for print media, and 23% for NPR or PBS.

That the Bush administration authorized merely "harsh interrogation techniques" would likewise be a common misperception. I don't have any doubt at all that if the torture scandal were broken down into misconceptions and polled by media source, you'd wind up with a result similar to PIPA's in 2003 -- with TV media doing the worst job and print and public media doing the best.

In the end, Gallups' study may only tell us something we've known for five years -- and that your mom suspected when you were a kid -- the more you watch TV, the dumber you get.


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1 comment:

vet said...

Anyone with the most rudimentary media exposure knows that "harsh interrogation techniques" work, dammit. We've seen them in 24, in Dark Knight, in lord knows how many other places.

And isn't there something viscerally satisfying in seeing the Good Guy slam the Bad Guy's face into whatever surface happens to be handy? Don't you get a rush when you see that? Wouldn't it be a ridiculous situation if they weren't allowed to do it?

In other words: blame Hollywood. It's been telling us for decades that torture is not merely okay, it's actually fun.