Media Shapes Views of Low-Information Voters

A funny television feature by Dan Joseph on MRCTV prompted me to question how public opinion could possibly be so distorted these days. In man-on-the-street interviews, the reporter asked numerous people whether President Obama or President Bush was responsible for the government shutdown. A hilarious succession of people solemnly declared that President Bush is the one responsible. While the interviews are laughable, the problem of "low-information voters" is not funny at all. A republic whose educational and cultural institutions produce voters that are ill informed cannot hope to arrive at good civic decisions.

Evidence that the public is not well-informed abounds. According to the Pew Research Center's biennial survey, television is still the public's top news source (69 percent) and the public still believes that journalists are the ones who make sense of issues and conflicts (54 percent) and that the press is a "watchdog" preventing political leaders from misleading the public (43 percent).

Yet, a fawning New York City reporter, WABC's Diana Williams, interviewed President Obama, asking him if he felt any responsibility for the government shutdown. Astoundingly, the president accepted absolutely no responsibility whatsoever, calling the standoff purely a result of the "bad strategy" of the GOP, aimed at "blindsiding" the Democrats and "extracting ransom." The obsequious reporter left unchallenged Obama's self-serving statements that painted him as "above the fray" and totally innocent of any involvement in the political crisis. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, the president claimed that he had a "track record of consistently seeking compromise," to the point that members of his party "were critical of him," but that he "always does what is best for the country." The reporter summed up the interview by calling him "calm, thoughtful and kind." Calm, perhaps. Kind? What planet has this reporter been living on for the last five years?

On the other hand, maybe Obama does sound kind in comparison to Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer.

While the political ramifications of low-information voters are significant, the cultural ramifications are equally troubling. Media frequently glamorize dysfunctional and reckless behavior and label those who suffer the consequences as "victims." Obviously, there are circumstances where someone is the perpetrator of actions that take advantage of someone else's innocence or ignorance. Likewise, there are codes of moral responsibility involved in taking advantage of someone who is incapable of understanding the danger of certain behavior. Nevertheless, it is wise to warn young people of the consequences of reckless and/or irresponsible behavior. Sadly, popular magazines and television programs often gloss over dangers and provide misleading propaganda about dangerous lifestyle choices.

According to Mediamark Research, Inc., People magazine, with 43.6 million adult readers, is the most-read magazine in America. Since I have a free subscription (thanks to some promotion a while back), I read several recent articles to see what people are learning from the magazine. I wondered, "What worldview is expressed in the articles?" This very limited personal experiment was revealing. In an article in the most recent issue (featured on the cover) about the tragic death of River Phoenix 20 years ago, the "gifted actor and Gen-X icon" is described as having been "felled by drugs at 23." Note the wording; the young actor is the victim. His death didn't result from actions he took; instead, the actor with millions of fans died too soon because, as depicted by People magazine, of something outside his control. His life, again according to the magazine, was "cut tragically short." Responsibility for the young man's death is never attributed. So, does labeling an event as a "tragedy" preclude a thoughtful and truthful reporting of it? One tribute to Phoenix praised his recklessness as though it was a lifestyle to model. One friend described his drug addiction in passive voice: "there was this drug decline;" he couldn't believe "someone could give him something that could kill him."

Slate, the nation's number-one online magazine, recently warned college girls about the connection between getting drunk and getting raped. While most of the article provides excellent data about the repercussions for women from drinking, the most poignant story in the article described the victim getting over her depression after being raped when she realized that it wasn't her fault. Friends said they saw her drunk and being led away by the male classmate who was not drunk. The article declared, "She came to understand that she had been raped." The girl said, "Since I realized it wasn't my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole." We are left to wonder if she ever realized that her choice to get drunk put her at the mercy of a predator and that such reckless behavior shouldn't be repeated in the future.

On the more positive side, some honest writers, publications, and program directors are becoming more responsible. For instance, even the liberal Boston Globe acknowledges that the president's rhetoric is a far cry from his reality. Matt Viser, a reporter for the Globe wrote a long piece, giving example after example of how "year-by-year" and "issue-by-issue" President Obama called for bipartisanship but said "no" when action was required or expected. In conclusion, Viser said, "While [Obama] talks about bipartisanship, he has done little to act it out." Worse, Viser reveals that none of Mr. Obama's legislative accomplishments -- the stimulus, health care, and financial reforms -- received more than six Republican votes.

Several publications -- including Townhall and Daily Caller -- featured the new 2013 Miss World, who advocates abstinence and pro-life positions. The beautiful 23-year-old Megan Young is a Filipino who used the pageant's theme, "Beauty with Purpose," to promote her conservative views with generally positive reactions from those covering the pageant. Also, Fox and Friends interviewed the 2013 Homecoming Queen at Auburn University who ran on a platform, "Light Up Life," complete with sparklers to point out the positive side of adoption instead of abortion.

Whether on television, the Internet, or in magazines, the media has tremendous influence on both the culture and politics. That influence can be positive or negative. We've had far too much of the negative influences, and it is heartening to see some glimmers of a more positive influence in the political arena, as well as in popular culture.

Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D., is an author, commentator and public speaker. She is Senior Fellow and Director of Concerned Women for America's Beverly LaHaye Institute.