TV News and the Myth of Public Opinion (Kinsley vs. Borneman)

Fourteen years ago, the underrated (or at least undervalued) Michael Kinsley reported in The New Yorker (“The Intellectual Free Lunch,” February 6, 1995, reprinted in his collection Big Babies) on a reputable survey that found that “75 percent of Americans believe that the United States spends ‘too much’ on foreign aid, and 64 percent want foreign-aid spending cut.” (“Apparently,” Kinsley added as an aside, “a cavalier 11 percent of Americans think it’s fine to spend ‘too much’ on foreign aid.”)

The same people were asked how much of the federal budget went to foreign aid, and “The median answer was 15 percent; the average answer was 18 percent.” But “the correct answer is less than 1 percent: the United States government spends about $14 billion a year on foreign aid (including military assistance) out of a total budget of $1.5 trillion.” When asked about how much foreign-aid spending would be “appropriate,” the median answer was 5 percent of the budget; and the median answer to how much would be “too little” was 3 percent, i.e. over three times the actual amount spent.

Kinsley then adds, “This poll is less interesting for what is shows about foreign aid than for what it shows about American democracy. It’s not just that Americans are scandalously ignorant. It’s that they seem to believe they have a democratic right to their ignorance….This is not, surely, a question of being misinformed ….People are forming and expressing passionate views about foreign aid on the basis of no information at all. Or perhaps they think that the amount being spent on foreign aid is a matter of opinion, like everything else.”

Kinsley sees “ubiquitous opinion polls” as “part of the problem”. But he might have added (and maybe he should have added) that part of what makes them so ubiquitous is their constant and automatic employment on the evening news — as if they had something concrete and definitive to tell us about the state of the nation apart from the feverish, voodoo-science speculation of marketers who are habitually blinded by their own self-fulfilling prophecies.

As I pointed out in the Introduction to my Movie Wars, Ernest Borneman said it all over 60 years ago when he published “The Public Opinion Myth” in Harper’s magazine in 1947. Among the many pertinent questions brought up there is the following rejoinder to test-marketing, which follows much of the same mythology as “public opinion”: “Does the whole process of audience testing…really qualify as a democratic process? Does it not resemble an election in which only one candidate has ever been introduced to the electorate?”

One might argue, in short, that asking an ignorant public to hold forth on foreign-aid expenditures and then broadcasting the results is to a certain degree both creating and compounding the problem, not merely “discovering” it. Call it the manufacture of pseudo-knowledge about the public’s ignorance (when calling the public both indifferent to and ill-informed about certain issues and all-too-willing to accept invitations to participate in opinion polls may actually come closer to the mark). And arguably turning all of this supposition into the evening news is to some extent just a further exercise in setting up straw men in order to knock them down. [7/31/09]

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