May 29, 2006

Selling ignorance

We Americans love to learn about how ignorant we are. At least, you'd think we did, given the steady pulse of news stories about how we can't find Afghanistan on the map, enumerate first-amendment freedoms, and so on. There are some other motivations, I guess, including the traditional sport of grumbling about cultural decay, and educators' interest in persuading the populace that we got trouble; but whatever the reason, there seems to be a small industry whose product is press releases suggesting that most of us are about 10 SAT points above grunting and bashing one another with sticks.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a particularly easy peg to hang such stories on. It's important, but complicated -- and so it's easy to find what looks like evidence of ignorance, and it's obvious that this matters, and it's trivial to apply the rhetoric of survey spin to make the point. For some LL discussion of an earlier case, see "Freedom of speech: more famous than Bart Simpson?" 3/3/2006. The truth about public knowledge and opinion in this area matters, in my opinion, and it's worthwhile for people to inoculate themselves against the kinds of spin used to exaggerate public ignorance, so I thought I'd post a little tour of a recent blogospheric example.

A couple of days ago, Glenn Greenwald posted a passionate denunciation of what he sees as recent assaults on First Amendment rights (Unclaimed Territory, "People who don't understand how America works", 5/27/2006). He describes the threats to "[imprison] journalists who publish stories containing information which the Bush administration wants to conceal", and the belief that "[if] you are a U.S. citizen, the President can unilaterally order you abducted and imprisoned; does not have to charge you with any crime; can block you from speaking with anyone, including a lawyer; can keep you incarcerated indefinitely (meaning forever); and can deny you the right to any judicial review of your imprisonment or any mechanism for challenging the accuracy of the accusations." He quotes approvingly from Antonin Scalia's opinion (in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld) that "[t]he very core of liberty secured by our Anglo-Saxon system of separated powers has been freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the Executive...", and concludes that "people who never learned that American citizens can't be imprisoned by Executive decree and without a trial, or that American journalists aren't imprisoned for stories they write about the Government's conduct ... plainly do not embrace, or comprehend, even the most basic principles of what America is".

I agree with Greenwald and Scalia about these issues, and (when the rhetorical underbrush is cleared away) I think that most other Americans do too. But one of the commenters on Greenwald's post suggests that the core of the problem is in the American population, not in certain factions of the American intellectual and governing classes, and supports the case with a quotation from one of the ignorance-mongering press releases I'm talking about:

Glenn, these demagogues are just reflecting the beliefs and understanding of their voters. Sadly enough, a recent poll shows that a significant minorty of Americans think the press should have moderate to severe restrictions on its freedom:

* Only 14% of Americans – and only 57% of journalists – can name freedom of the press as a right in the First Amendment.
* 43% of Americans believe the press has “too much freedom,” while 3% of journalists agree.
* 22% of Americans believe government should be able to censor newspapers.
* 72% of journalists said the media is doing at least a good job in reporting information accurately; 39% of Americans agreed.
* Only about one-third (36%) of Americans agree the news media tries to report the news without bias, while 61% claim there is bias in news coverage.

The hyperlinked press release doesn't tell us what questions were asked in what order, but it gives a clue:

Only 14% of Americans, and 57% of newspaper and TV journalists, can name “freedom of the press” as a right that is guaranteed by the First Amendment, according to a new University of Connecticut study.

“Freedom of the press is at the core of America’s brand of democracy,” commented Professor Ken Dautrich who directed the study. “It’s quite surprising that so few Americans can name it as part of the First Amendment. Even more disappointing is the fact that those who use free press rights in their work aren’t more knowledgeable about it.”

When asked to identify the specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, “freedom of speech” is cited most frequently (58%) by Americans, followed by freedom of religion (16%). The right to peaceably assemble (10%), and the right to petition government for a redress of grievances (1%) are even less identifiable than free press.

If you're hip to the rhetoric of survey spin, you'll guess at this point that the survey asked people to enumerate first-amendment rights by free recall. They probably weren't given a list of possible rights (real and fake) to pick from; and they probably weren't asked to list the rights guaranteed by the constitution as a whole, or by the bill of rights, or whatever.

Think about this for a minute. Do the Ten Commandments prohibit adultery? I bet that most people would say "yes". What is the number of the commandment that prohibits adultery? I bet that most people can't remember. What does the 8th commandment say? I bet that most people can't remember this either (hint: that's not the one about adultery).

Now, if you want to design and report a survey to show that people are ignorant of the decalogue, you'll ask a question like "what does the eighth commandment say?", and you'll report the results by writing something like "Only 14% of Americans, and 57% of preachers, were aware of the commandment that prohibits stealing".

The UConn press release tells us that "A complete copy of the survey results can be found at:", but this is apparently no longer true. However, a bit of general googling suggests that there is a close relationship between the cited survey and one carried out by New England Survey Research Associates for the First Amendment Center: "State of the First Amendment 2005". At least, the report credits "Professors David Yalof and Ken Dautrich" with devising the questions and supervising the survey, and the reported numbers are similar though not identical. According to that report, the very first question in the survey was indeed:

As you may know, the First Amendment is part of the U.S. Constitution. Can you name any of the specific rights that are guaranteed by the First Amendment?

The report gives percentages for a few of the answers, broken down over several years of the survey:

  1997 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Freedom of the press 11% 2% 12% 14% 14% 16% 15% 16%
Freedom of speech 49% 44% 60% 59% 58% 63% 58% 63%
Freedom of religion 21% 13% 16% 16% 18% 22% 17% 20%
Right to petition 2% 2% 21% 1% 2% 2% 1% 3%
Right of assembly/association 10% 9% 9% 10% 10% 11% 10% 14%
Don't know/refused to answer N/A N/A 37% 36% 35% 37% 35% 29%

Just for reference, in case you don't happen to have the first amendment memorized yourself, it reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

(And why not go ahead and memorize it? It's only 45 words long... For that matter, the whole Bill of Rights is just 613 words.) As the survey results indicate, most people associate the first amendment with freedom of speech. I suspect that 63% is a higher percentage than could say what the first commandment requires, in a similar test of free recall.

The poll's questions #3 and #8 are more relevant to the first topic of Glenn's post:

3. Overall, do you think the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, too little freedom to do what it wants, or is the amount of freedom the press has about right?

  1997 1999 1999(f) 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Too much freedom 38% 53% 42% 51% 46% 42% 46% 42% 39%
Too little freedom 9% 7% 8% 7% 8% 8% 9% 12% 10%
About right 50% 37% 48% 41% 42% 49% 43% 44% 47%
Don't know/refused to answer 3% 2% 3% 2% 3% 2% 1% 3% 4%

8. Overall, do you think Americans have too much, too little or just the right amount of access to information about the federal government’s war on terrorism?

  2002 2003 2004 2005
Too much access 16% 12% 15% 14%
Too little access 40% 48% 50% 52%
Just about the right amount 38% 38% 31% 30%
Don't know/refused to answer 6% 2% 4% 4%

Those were the results from a year ago -- this year's survey has yet to be posted -- but I'd be very surprised if things had changed so as to put the American public further away from wanting to be kept informed by a free press. Except for the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a solid majority of Americans think that there is too little or about the right amount of press freedom. Public opinion about legal sanctions for publishing classified information no doubt depend on the details of the case, but I'd be surprised if a majority of Americans favored allowing a president to categorize the publication of arbitrary information as a crime.

The results of four additional survey questions were released separately by the American Journalism Review. These results underlined my point even more strongly:

The 2005 edition of the poll, commissioned by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with AJR, found that 69 percent of Americans agree with the statement: "Journalists should be allowed to keep a news source confidential."

This surprised the pundits, who may have been drinking their own kool-aid:

National Journal media columnist William Powers thinks it's "amazing that that many people are behind this principle," saying he would have guessed support would be less than 50 percent.

There was some other good news:

The survey offers one other encouraging finding for the media. Americans endorsed the press' watchdog role, with 74 percent agreeing with the statement: "It is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government."

All this despite the public's rather low opinion of the media biz:

... an unnerving 65 percent of those polled agreed with the statement: "The falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem."

And a mere 33 percent agreed that: "Overall, the news media tries to report the news without bias." That's down 6 percentage points from last year. Among the 64 percent of Americans who disagreed with that statement, 42 percent strongly disagreed.

On all these points, my own opinions line up pretty close to those of the folks who were surveyed. And as a group, we're better informed, more sensible, and more American than the PR spin suggests.

Note that I'm not blaming Greenwald's anonymous commenter. (S)he just swallowed the bait dangled by the press release and its media uptake, as all too many people do. But the real public-opinion situation is a lot better -- and that matters.

[Update -- Zeno points out that the ten commandments are an especially tricky example:

The sixth commandment says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." The eighth commandment says "Thou shalt not bear false witness." If you think I'm off by one in each case, then it's because you're not using the traditional Catholic numbering of the commandments. (I think the Lutherans use the same numbering.) Catholics have two commandments (9 & 10) about coveting, whereas most Protestants have one omnibus anti-coveting commandment (10). To make up the difference, they split in two the commandment that Catholics consider the first: "I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no strange gods before me."

This means, of course, that a Protestant pollster could easily mark me down as someone who doesn't know the Ten Commandments. I'd be a confirming instance of the ignorance of the man in the street. And it would be false witness, too.

So it'll be especially easy to find "ignorant" clergy. Seriously, this is like the issues with counting the "five freedoms" discussed here. Also, it never occurred to me before to wonder: whose numbering gets used on those public decalogue displays that have been a matter of first-amendment contention in recent years? ]

[Update #2 -- Ran Ari-Gur wrote:

I completely agree, and I think a further point is that freedom of the press is really just a kind of freedom of speech, so that it's not unreasonable for someone not to name it if they've already named freedom of speech. (Technically, there may be a line where one ends and the other begins, but if so, we're no longer talking about the basic facts of the Bill of Rights that every American should know.)

On one hand, there's a conceptual thread that ties religion, speech, press, assembly and petition together in the first amendment; and on the other hand, the founders had reasons for enumerating them separately. But in any case, it's certainly true that the development of online media increasingly blurs the boundary between the speech of ordinary citizens and "the press". ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 29, 2006 12:54 PM