Monday, August 17, 2009

Why we need the media to focus on the facts

by Jamison Foser
In a conversation earlier this week about polls showing that large numbers of Republicans don't believe Barack Obama was born in the United States, I wondered how many of those respondents might not know that Hawaii is a state. That wasn't a shot at Republicans; I just think people in general know less about their country than we tend to assume.

The next day, The Washington Independent's David Weigel -- whose birther coverage has been indispensable -- pointed out a new poll showing that 8 percent of North Carolinians (and 11 percent of McCain voters in North Carolina) either think Hawaii is not part of the U.S. or are not sure.

Think about that for a minute. One in 10 McCain voters in North Carolina doesn't know that Hawaii is part of the U.S.

Does that surprise you? It shouldn't.

The simple fact is that a heck of a lot of Americans don't know much about their country or the basics of how government works.

In 2007, the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of Americans could not name the current vice president. Fifty-one percent could not identify Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Twenty-four percent did not know which political party controlled the House of Representatives -- just months after Democrats took control, when the information should have been fresh in people's minds.

My favorite example of the fact that a great many people don't know the basics is the poll that showed that during then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley's unsuccessful 1994 re-election campaign, 30 percent of his constituents thought that if Republican George Nethercutt defeated Foley, Nethercutt would become speaker. Given that Nethercutt eked out a win with 51 percent of the vote, it isn't at all hard to imagine that Foley might have been re-elected had voters understood the clout their district stood to lose by replacing him. (Of course, Foley wouldn't have remained speaker anyway, as Republicans won control of Congress.)

If so many voters are wrong about basics like whether Hawaii is part of the U.S. and whether the representative from Washington's 5th Congressional District is automatically the speaker of the House, imagine how little they must know about complex public policy questions.

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