Spare a Thought For the Ignorant American

A recent Zogby poll of Americans showed 47% support for military action against Iran. Of these, nearly three in four want joint air strikes with Europe, while a quarter support a ‘pre-emptive nuclear strike’.  Staggering?  Not as staggering as the comparison with an identical Zogby poll undertaken a year ago. It showed 76% of Americans thought the U.S. should let Iran determine its own future and were opposed to the U.S. trying to bring about regime change in the Islamic state.

How can there be so much volatility in U.S. opinion – on an issue that could massively impact us all?

The reasons are many. But one stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: a flawed media system in America, ruthlessly exploited by politicians to influence American public opinion.

Let’s back up a moment. Iran’s leadership has admittedly hardly endeared itself over the past year. Comments in October from their hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’, followed by a claim in December that the Holocaust was a ‘myth’ were guaranteed to inflame. And the Iranian leaderships’ continued refusal to play ball with the international community over its nuclear enrichment programmes has, I accept, been enough to impact public opinion.

'A flawed media system in America is ruthlessly exploited by politicians to influence American public opinion.'

This seems to be borne out in a separate recent poll by the respected Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which shows the number of Americans who believe Iran is the ‘biggest threat’ to America leapt three fold from 9% to 27% in just four months - from October 2005 to January 2006.

But does the Iranian behaviour amount to a ‘threat’ great enough to turn American opinion upside-down – in just 12-months? Absolutely not. What happened to the apparent threat posed by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda? Then there is North Korea – a state that is way ahead of Iran in developing nuclear weapons and is quite happy to issue foreign policy statements that make Ahmadinejad’s remarks look like a graceful ballerina.

The easy answer is to blame the Yanks for being ignorant, SUV-driving, Big Mac-eating fatties, with a disposition for trampling over the rest of the world. They have screwed up Iraq and are now ready to move on to number two in the ‘axis-of-evil’. Let’s face it: we all like an anti-American rant.

But spare a thought for Mr. Average American. His apparent willingness to wildly change his opinion may not be entirely his fault.

The real blame lies with America’s system of media, which is profoundly flawed. It allows politicians to ruthlessly manipulate it in order to influence public opinion.

The result: massive, dangerous swings in public opinion. In fact, I believe the media system in America is so screwed up that if the average Brit lived there instead, they would probably think bombing Iran is a good idea, too.

Put yourself in the shoes for a day of Mr. Average Yank:

7.30am The radio alarm goes off. Tuning the radio in, you are bombarded by radical right-wing talk shows.

8am As you eat your breakfast, watching the news on the TV, international issues account for less than 5% of what you see.

8.30am Stop at the news-stand on the way to work. There are no national newspapers comparable to Britain’s broadsheets. In fact, most cities in America have a single ‘city-wide’ paper in which international news barely gets a mention. The nearest you get is the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but, bar their editorial pages, these are fiercely objective papers. There is none of the spectrum of left to right political opinion we get from the Independent to the Daily Telegraph. In America, there are a few down-market tabloids, and nothing even close to the red-top tabloids in Britain, which, while preferring the latest celebrity gossip, rarely shy-away from the latest foreign policy issue – especially when it comes to ‘our heroic troops’ getting involved in military action.

9.30 am At work ‘foreign issues’ are unlikely to come up. Few colleagues will have travelled abroad - possibly Mexico at a stretch – or even have a passport. The rest of the world will be 3000 miles away, or more.

6pm Get home and flick on the TV. But instead of getting a reasonably objective summary of ‘world news’ from the BBC, you get FOX; a channel whose views are so right-wing they make Bush look like Galloway. Worst of all, however, they claim to be objective, with the strap-line: ‘We report, you decide.’

'Imagine Britain as follows: no red-top tabloids, no nationwide newspapers, no left-wing Guardian and Independent and a massively weakened BBC.'

All other major U.S. TV news-producing networks – CBS, NBC and ABC – are owned by multi-national companies, leaving editorial independence vulnerable to commercial pressure. If they say something the President doesn’t like, they risk being frozen out of the White House press corps. This leaves them hamstrung in the aggressive competition for viewers – and the advertising revenues they bring. So the networks tend to tow the line.

Put it another way, imagine Britain as follows: no red-top tabloids, no nationwide newspapers, no left-wing Guardian and Independent, a massively weakened BBC and deregulated broadcasting laws so that any nut can espouse their political views on the airwaves.

Then you flick on the TV to see President Bush (read Tony Blair) say, in his most important speech of the year to the nation, Iran “is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iran regime to gain nuclear weapons. America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats.”

You have read little negative press about him. In fact, for months you have unwittingly been bombarded with right-wing views in the media. Is it any wonder you have shifted your opinion, in a little over a year, from allowing Iran to determine its own future, to bombing it?

Are the Americans being foxed by FOX?