The media we watch informs our opinions, often for the worse. In 2003, a Gallup Poll revealed that solid majorities of Americans supported President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, which was in stark contrast the opposition to the war held by global polities. The invasion and the disastrous occupation that ensued continue to haunt the United States. It wrecked our economy, trashed our standing as a country that upholds rule of law, generated global suspicions about American intentions towards the Muslim world, undermined our relations with key allies, and created the very conditions that gave rise to ISIS. Despite the fact global publics resoundingly rejected the war, a majority of Americans supported it. Fifteen years later, Americans remain divided on this war despite the volumes of information about it and its motivations. In March 2018, another national poll of American adults found that while 48% believed the use of military force was wrong, 43% supported it use.
Americans Were Asked Three Questions
In 2003, one year after the invasion, several researchers wanted to understand the bizarre beliefs Americans espoused about the war. The researchers asked Americans three basic questions, to which the answers were clearly “no” — Has the United States found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation? Has the US found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? And whether or not they agreed that world populations supported the war, opposed it or were evenly balanced. The team found that Americans, on average, were misinformed. A majority of Americans surveyed repeatedly in 2003 believed that Hussain was working with al-Qaeda. In fact, Hussain and al-Qaeda were sworn enemies.
Depending upon the month surveyed, anywhere between one in three and one in five believed that the United States found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, when, in fact, there were no such weapons to be found. Even though global opinion was decidedly opposed to the war, about one in four thought global publics supported it, while about one in three thought they were “evenly balanced”. Across all American adults surveyed, only one in three had no misperceptions. Unsurprisingly, those who had such misperceptions were more supportive of the war than those without.
The Source of News Matters
How did Americans come to be so ill-informed about a war of such enormous consequence? It’s reasonable to posit some role of the media they consumed. The team also asked respondents where they got most of their news. Of the 3,334 persons asked, 19 per cent primarily obtained their news from print media while 80 per cent cited non-print means. Respondents were then asked about the specific news network they primarily use to obtain “information.” Because consumers of public radio and public television were so few, they were combined into one category.
However, what was surprising is that among CNN viewers, 55 per cent had one or more misperceptions. In comparison, 71 per cent of CBS news consumers, 61 per cent of ABC consumers, 55 per cent of NBC consumers, and 47 per cent of print news consumers had one or more misperceptions. (Note this survey did not include MSNBC, which caters to consumers on the American political left.)
The team also examined the average rate of misperceptions. While Fox came in with the highest rate of misperception (45), the other media outlets had roughly the same rate of execrableness. CBS, CNN, ABC, NBC, and Print Media has misperception rates of 36, 31, 30, 30 and 25 respectively. Consumers of public media (NPR and PBS) were the least likely to be ill-informed on these three issues with an average misperception rate of 11.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions: global media which have a responsibility to inform are failing in their most basic charge.
My Personal Experience
As a scholar, I am curious about the causal pathways that account for the failures of important media houses to inform their publics. Personally, I have had about 20 years of my own experiences that have helped shape my understanding of these failures. Here are a few insights from my own participation in news programs that span North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
It should be no surprise that Pakistan television shows have been particularly problematic for me: a scholar who had dedicated much of her career to unpacking the strategic culture of a country that is the single-most contributor to instability in South Asia. There was a time when I did do Pakistani television shows because Pakistan’s deep state generally viewed me as someone who is not in anyone’s pocket. I have a reputation as a fierce and blunt critic of any policy or country that I deemed as deserving criticism.
However, one experience in Pakistan was particularly telling. Sometime around 2010, I was doing a one-on-one interview with a female anchor of a popular show on Pakistan’s MSNBC. The anchor asked me “Why can’t the United States be a friend to Pakistan like China?” I answered in my typically blunt way “You mean, fail to bail it out of any war it starts, provide loan aid with heavy interest rates instead of grant aid and enough weapons to encourage to pick a fight with India but not help you when a fight happens?” I had not completed my final sentence when the host immediately and abruptly went to an unplanned commercial break. She told me plainly that I could not speak of China in this way. I told her plainly, “Then don’t ask me questions about China.”
‘Editorial Positions’ Are usually Missionary
For many years, I had experienced the “editorial positions” of television networks — notably of the BBC and Al Jazeera — on drones. Neither channel would indulge any position, however grounded in data, which supported the drone program in Pakistan as I did. At one point, during an Al Jazeera programme, the co-host, Mehdi Hassan, actually said “forget about the data”. For some time, I was persona non grata at the network for repeatedly calling out Al Jazeera’s fictions about the programme.
And as many confrontations I have had with what passes for news among Pakistan’s channels, I had had my own experiences with the circus of buffoonery that so often characterises India’s own migraine-inducing television channels.
However, two recent experiences stand out because of their momentous consequences. On 26 August, 2021, I did an interview with Bloomberg Asia on the developments in Afghanistan. When the panel asked me about the most likely source of income for the Taliban, I began to explain China’s support to the movement that predated 9/11 and which continues to date. One of the hosts, Rishaad Salamat, immediately tried to shout me down and claimed that these assertions were merely speculation. Naturally, I stood my ground and maintained that these assertions are facts for which I have substantiating evidence.
In hindsight, it was clear that the network was worried about irritating China, which has gone to great lengths to silence any uncomfortable truth about its atrocities at home and abroad. In fairness, I don’t have high expectations of journalistic integrity from a network dedicated to the global elite’s wealth accumulation.
The Philippa Thomas Fiasco
Of more concern is my recent interview with Philippa Thomas of the BBC. Ms. Thomas is a popular newsreader on the network and I had been interviewed by her before. She is one of countless many persons who are hired to read the teleprompter with enthusiasm while interviewing guests, while never cultivating any substantive expertise.
Ms. Thomas set the tone by addressing me as “Christine.” Does she usually address her guests with the familiarity of a brunch companion? Throughout the interview she made numerous unprofessional grimaces which one expects from a balatron like Tucker Carlson.
As is apparent in the clip, every question Ms. Thomas posed was pre-loaded and sympathetic to Pakistani official–if farcical–claims. Whether I sought to explain Pakistan’s historical 7-decade-long effort to subjugate Afghanistan, its long-standing reliance upon Islamist terror groups as tools of foreign policy, or even its well-established rent-seeking strategy of claiming to be the fireman instead of the arsonist it is, she interrupted me and repeatedly asserted that Pakistani officials would, of course, disagree with me. Oddly, several Pakistani officials who had previously been on the network had confessed to doing exactly as I charged.
Surely, if there had been a Pakistani official present, they would have offered their preferred storyline of perpetual victimhood. And indeed, such officials are frequent guests of the BBC. No matter what absurd falsehood they assert, they are not interrupted. And certainly, no newsreader would ever say things like “Well, of course, if we had a scholar on Pakistan’s strategic culture, they would reject these claims”. It’s preposterous to even even consider it.
Most shockingly, she abruptly cut off the interview when I reminded her that Pakistan has long-relied upon a menagerie of Islamist terrorists to prosecute its foreign policy goals. As she turned her attention to her viewers, she concluded with another maniacal facial contortion more suitable for a farceur than a BBC newsreader.
Britain’s Domestic Politics Tied With BBC?
I’ve been left pondering that interview and the comportment of Ms. Thomas. Was Ms. Thomas simply a rank simpleton or ignoramus? I must reject that explanation because the premises of her questions reflected a deep familiarity with Rawalpindi’s narrative. Also, she seemed astutely aware of the kinds of things that would irritate Pakistan’s Derp State. I also reject the conspiracy theories popular in India that the BBC is “anti-Hindu”. The BBC does spend a lot of time covering uncomfortable events in India, but too many Indians would rather blame the international coverage of atrocities than the perpetrators of such atrocities.
Instead, I suspect that this shameful episode has more to do with the domestic politics of the news outlet. The BBC is a publicly owned institution and a long-cherished institution at that. But in the context of British electoral politics, this does not ensure fair and accurate programming. In fact, it ensures, specific blind-spots and one of those blind spots is Pakistan. In 2019, fifteen candidates of Pakistani descent were elected to parliament. This reflects the electoral significance of British Pakistanis. And British Pakistanis are important swing voters in key constituencies. Thus this electorate is and will remain important for both the Conservative and Labour parties.
British authorities have long known that segments of the British Pakistani community have deep and significant ties to terrorism. However, they have struggled to not be seen as targeting those communities because of presumed backlash from British Pakistanis specifically or British Muslims more generally.
Britain’s flagship counter-radicalisation project PREVENT goes to great lengths to obfuscate one of its most important target audiences. Britain, like the United States, has long known that Pakistan ultimately is behind the deaths of its soldiers and civilians. And like the United States, it has resisted publicly chastising Pakistan for its support to terrorism generally or the Taliban and Haqqani Network specifically. Why? The United Kingdom has long worked with the ISI to obtain information about the activities of its citizens when they visit Pakistan. In this cold calculus, British soldiers signed up to be blown up. But civilians riding Britain’s metros and buses didn’t.
It is very likely that the BBC wants to avoid any political fallout for programming presumed to offend the sensibilities of this important swing electorate.
The Birth of Idiocracies
While it’s easy to be outraged that the BBC is happily carrying out Pakistan’s information offensive, we need to ask ourselves, is there any network that is any better across the board? As I reflect upon my own experiences as a public intellectual but also my experience as a scholar who has sought to understand how media informs the public, I have come to the conclusion that the greatest threat to democracies everywhere and a secure and peaceful world is, in fact, such media houses.
Motivated by their parochial politics and demands for revenue, they misinform the global polities on issues pertaining to war and peace, climate change, the current pandemic, the salubrious benefits of vaccines or wearing masks, or simply shaping a polity to vote for one candidate over another. In short, the global polities have been reduced to idiocracies and we have only ourselves to blame.
A version of this essay was published in The Quint on 7 September 2021.