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August 20, 2006

Democracy. Stupidity. Media.

In an earlier posting about the arrests in Britain for the plot to use explosives in liquid bottles, I mentioned an item from Juan Cole's excellent blog:

It turns out that the more Arab students listen to Radio Sawa and watch al-Hurra Television, the US government's main media effort at winning hearts and minds, the more they disliked US policies. Turns out it isn't how the policies are packaged on the airwaves that matters. It is the policies. The students mostly think they stink.

I was going to make a snarky comment about the need for Western-style democracy there - I mean, they're still focusing on substance and content. How primitive. We need to teach them spin, and photo-ops, and so many other wonderous tools that keep people confused and distracted. But I decided it was a bit of a distraction to what I was writing and wouldn't go there.

But then I was reading Bob Harris, who is one of my favorite bloggers (gotta love categories like American Culture and Other Scary Things). He's noting an item from a Zogby Poll, which finds 

  • Three-quarters of Americans can correctly identify two of Snow White's seven dwarfs while only a quarter can name two Supreme Court justices...


  • Respondents are far more familiar with the Three Stooges - Larry, Curly and Moe - than the three branches of the US Government - judicial, executive and legislative.  Seventy-four per cent identified the former, while 42 per cent identified the latter.

The link he had to the original story ("Dwarfs better known than US justices") also noted

  • Twice as many people (23 per cent) were able to identify the most recent winner of the television talent show American Idol, Taylor Hicks, as were able to name the Supreme Court Justice confirmed in January 2006, Samuel Alito (11 per cent).


  • It shows that 57 per cent of Americans can identify JK Rowling's fictional boy wizard as Harry Potter, while only 50 per cent can name the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Zogby had been commissioned to do the poll (of 1,213 people in the U.S) by makers of a new pop culture gam show. But the news story on this item ran in an Australian paper - and maybe I missed it, but I didn't see the news in U.S. papers. Maybe if the survey was about students, the press would run it with analysis of the failing education system. But the problem seems to be bigger, and while not entirely a mass media failing certainly indicates an occasion for media introspection, yes?

Maybe I'm feeling especially critical of the media after watching how ABC sanitized the interview with Spike Lee for their network news broadcast. The interview was about his katrina documentary, and  to their credit ABC posted the longer version on their website. Alternet has the two versions handy for comparison. Good exercise in looking at how the 22 minutes of 'news' on the evening network news comes together.

Adding to my frustration here is news that in a survey of 33 countries, the U.S. came second to the last in acceptance of evolution - Turkey expressed a little more doubt about the origin of species. Slovenia, Estonia, Malta (how many people know where that is?), Croatia, Latvia and Cyprus all had higher levels of endorsement of evolution than the US. The NY Times is all over this one: "Did Humans Evolve? Not Us, Say Americans."

Must be intelligent design of US democracy and media.  

UPDATE/POSTSCRIPT - Another post from Juan Cole provides the perfect conclusion (more substantive than my intelligent design crack)

JonBenet Ramsey and Abeer al-Janabi

Overseas readers who don't watch US-based cable news may not know that there is a news blackout on the 24 hours news stations, which have shown endless hours of useless speculation on a ten year old small town murder case. Why the cable news channels in the US behave in this stupid and lemming-like fashion no doubt has to do with the severe discipline of the advertising market and its dependence on ratings. I.e., news has to generate 20 percent profits, which it cannot do, and so lurid infotainment is substituted. It is also possible that they are deliberately attempting to turn American gray matter into mush so as to ensure that nobody on this continent notices what is really going on around them.

But although I mind this pollution of the air waves with something that is not, whatever it is, news, the main thing I mind is the racism.

The case of Abeer al-Janabi, the little fourteen-year old Iraqi girl who was allegedly raped and killed after being stalked by a US serviceman would never be given the wall to wall coverage treatment.

That is frankly because the victim was not a blonde, blue-eyed American, but a black-eyed, brunette Iraqi. Both victims were pretty little girls. Both were killed by sick predators. But whereas endless speculation about the Ramsey case, to the exclusion of important real news stories, is thought incumbent in cabalnewsland, Abeer al-Janabi's death is not treated obsessively in the same way. In the hyperlinked story above, CNN even calls the little girl a "woman" at first mention, because the US military indictment did so. Only later in the article is it revealed that she was a little girl. The very pedophiliac nature of the crime is more or less overed up in the case of al-Janabi, even as looped video of Ramsay as too grown up is endlessly inflicted on us.

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