What Buchanan Says

2 comments May 24th, 2007at 06:14pm Posted by Eli

Okay, so it’s Mark Buchanan, but I think he’s onto something here:

The pattern is familiar. Polls show that most Americans want our government to stop its unilateral swaggering, and to try to solve our differences with other nations through diplomacy. In early April, for example, when the speaker of the House, the Democrat Nancy Pelosi, visited Syria and met with President Bashar al-Assad, a poll had 64 percent of Americans in favor of negotiations with the Syrians. Yet this didn’t stop an outpouring of media alarm.


Or take the matter of the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Most media figures seem to consider the very idea as issuing from the unhinged imaginations of a lunatic fringe. But according to a recent poll, 39 percent of Americans in fact support it, including 42 percent of independents.

A common explanation of this tendency toward distortion is that the beltway media has attended a few too many White House Correspondents’ Dinners and so cannot possibly cover the administration with anything approaching objectivity. No doubt the Republicans’ notoriously well-organized efforts in casting the media as having a “liberal bias” also have their intended effect in suppressing criticism.

But 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. A study back then had surprisingly found that most kids in an all-white fraternity were privately in favor of admitting black members, though most assumed, wrongly, that their personal views were greatly in the minority. Natural temerity made each individual assume that he was the lone oddball.


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. Psychologists have noted that students who are the heaviest drinkers, for example, tend to speak out most strongly against proposed measures to curb drinking, and act as “subculture custodians” in support of their own minority views. Their strong vocalization can produce “false consensus” against such measures, as others, who think they’re part of the minority, keep quiet. As a consequence, the extremists gain influence out of all proportion to their numbers, while the views of the silent majority end up being suppressed. (The United States Department of Education has a brief page on the main ideas here.)


Over the past couple months, Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com has done a superb job of documenting what certainly seems like it might be a case of pluralistic ignorance among the major political media, many (though certainly not all) of whom often seem to act as “subculture custodians” of their own amplified minority views. Routinely, it seems, views that get expressed and presented as majority views aren’t really that at all.

In a typical example in March, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported that most Americans wanted to pardon Scooter Libby, saying that the polling “indicates that most people think, in fact, that he should be pardoned, Scooter Libby should be pardoned.” In fact, polls showed that only 18 percent then favored a pardon.


As most people get their news from the major outlets, these distortions – however they occur, whether intentionally or through some more innocuous process of filtering – almost certainly translate into a strongly distorted image in peoples’ minds of what most people across the country think. They contribute to making mainstream Americans feel as if they’re probably not mainstream, which in turn may make them less likely to voice their opinions.

This analysis really resonated with me, as I have noticed that the media is very insistent about telling us not just what we should believe, but what we supposedly already believe, which I find even more sinister, like peer pressure on a grand scale. The media is so obsessed with this bogus “What the American people think” narrative that I simply cannot believe they are just innocent dupes who have fallen prey to the Republicans’ claims of “subcultural custodianship.” No, they are actively pushing the Republican message that progressive views are fringe and marginal, held only by Michael Moore and Barbra Streisand and the radical bomb-throwing leftists at MoveOn, not like you, the sensible salt-of-the-earth American viewer at home.

Does it work? Well, sort of: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen commenters (especially the ones from conservative states or districts) at liberal blogs express their relief at discovering that they were not alone. But it’s a lot. The blogosphere is a valuable reality check for progressives who see and hear and read nothing but Republican propaganda in the mainstream media and begin to doubt their own sanity. Of course, they have to find it first, or some other kind of support system, like friends or family or significant others or local political groups.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live a life where you know everything you’re reading and hearing is wrong, but you think you’re the only one who thinks so. I think it would be very tempting to just let go and decide that, well, if everyone else thinks that way, they can’t possibly be wrong…

Entry Filed under: Media,Politics,Republicans


  • 1. PoiShifter  |  May 24th, 2007 at 6:39 pm

    It’s very effective since the majority of Americans still get their news from the main cable news networks, all of which are bought and paid for either directly or indirectly via ad revenue.

    When Pelosi took her trip there was a contingent of Republicans that also made a trip to Syria…Barely a word about that in the MSM but they couldn’t get eough of Pelosi wearing a habib when visiting Holy sites.

    Did you catch the Simpsons last Sunday? They nailed the corporate media.

    I do believe it is a form of mind control. I try to avoid the broadcast news but every now and again my girlfriend has it on…they repeat the same shit over and over and just drill it into your head.

    And even though a report on Bush may have a slight negative tint to it, they’ll still play the clips of Bush over and over spewing his talking points.

    Unfortunately it works. Facts get distorted and reality shaped.

    Remember for a couple of years most Americans believed Iraq attacked us on 9/11.

  • 2. Eli  |  May 24th, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    Buchanan actually did talk about the media frenzy over Pelosi’s trip to Syria, and how there was no mention of the Republicans who went with her, and the fact that it didn’t hurt her poll numbers in the slightest, and that Andrea Mitchell said Pelosi was even more unpopular than Hastert, even though she was outpolling him 50-22… I was trying to keep the excerpt from getting too excessively long, though.

    I missed Simpsons, but I did see the exchange where Homer was talking about Mexican gays sneaking across the border to unplug our braindead women…

    The reason I’m so very concerned about the media is that they are the gatekeepers to reality for the people who get all their information from TV and radio and (maybe) newspapers. So when someone on TV tells them that Bush is resolute and strong, or that Democrats are just as corrupt and evil as Republicans, they’re more likely to believe it.

    Fortunately, enough reality leaks through from other sources that the media has to at least stay within shouting distance of reality, which is not favorable to the Republicans. But they still frame everything to minimize the significance of the Republicans’ crimes and to cast the Democrats in the worst possible light.

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