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Peter's Peace Platoon

ABC's Crusade Against "Arrogant" American Power

4. Playing with Polls

The major networks, news magazines, and newspapers use polls to help them figure out how politicians and policies are faring with America. But they also have used them in the past to manipulate public opinion by touting results gleaned from loaded questions, such as public opposition to nonexistent spending “cuts.” In the pre-war buildup, ABC manipulated public opinion with very selective reporting on poll results. They favored polls showing support slipping for the White House, and sometimes failed to tell viewers when their own poll numbers revealed growing support for the White House case.

On the night after the State of the Union address, the January 29 NBC Nightly News ended with a story by Jim Avila on how a post-speech Gallup poll revealed a nation impressed: “Before, only 47 percent believed President Bush made a convincing case for military action. After, 67 [percent] supported an attack.”

On World News Tonight, however, Jennings began: “And now to the President’s impact last night on public opinion. We knew going into the speech that the country was divided on many issues, including what to do about Iraq, or in some cases, when. And as we do on occasions like this, we conducted a poll when he was finished and we found that people had not changed their minds in significant numbers.”

So how could Jennings maintain that they found no significant change in the numbers? In the eighth paragraph of Langer’s Web site report, he noted little change, but the time between polls was only one day: “63 percent support military action – essentially unchanged from 61 percent Monday night.”

Hours before the State of the Union address the night before, Jennings mentioned the 61 percent figure on his newscast, but surrounded it with more liberal-pleasing numbers: “An ABC News poll for this occasion finds that 64 percent of Americans believe the UN weapons inspectors should be given a few more months to do their jobs, 61 percent support attacking Iraq eventually. But only 44 percent of American support a war if the UN does not approve.”

Jennings tried to make a trend out of a blip a week earlier on World News Tonight, when ABC found a slip in the polls: “An ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that public support for attacking Iraq has declined somewhat: 57 percent of Americans now support U.S. military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein. It was 62 percent in mid-December, and as high as 78 percent a few months after the 9-11 attacks.” So dropping from 62 to 57 percent was news, but rising back to 61 percent was not reported as a jump, and another bump to 63 percent was dismissed as no change. (The 62 percent rating was mentioned in the midst of a wave of protest-promoting coverage on January 18, as well as the finding only 42 percent supported war “if the U.S has to go it alone.”)

Downplaying the Powell Effect. In the aftermath of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 address to the UN laying out the case of Iraqi non-compliance with UN orders to disarm, Jennings noted a new ABC News poll found that 71 percent thought Powell was convincing and 61 percent thought the Bush team justified going to war. So he went overseas to find discontent: “There’s a degree of opposition to war in every country, even where the government has been supportive” and that “many Arabs, even if they dislike Saddam Hussein, wonder about America’s long-term intentions.”

The anchorman’s acknowledgment of growing domestic support might seem generous, but it’s not. On this question – “Do you think the Bush Administration has or has not presented enough evidence to show why the United States should use military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power?”– the number rose from 48 percent three weeks before Powell spoke to 61 percent afterwards. Langer’s Web report on ABC’s polling found movement after Powell’s speech: two-thirds now supported war on Iraq, and the number of those supporting war without UN endorsement rose from the 44 percent Jennings announced before the State of the Union to “half.” Langer also found “the preference for giving the UN inspectors a few more weeks or less, rather than a few months or more, is up by eight points to 59 percent.” Jennings left these numbers out of his show.

“No Consensus”? As the polls solidified behind Bush, Jennings began the February 10 World News Tonight from Portland, Oregon in denial: “On the road in America, listening to Oregon. There is no consensus about war.” But at the end of the show, as he described his duties hosting a town meeting in Portland, Jennings explained: “There is a lot of anti-war sentiment in the city. In January 25,000 people demonstrated against going to war. As of this week, the state as a whole supports the President. Last night at a town hall meeting, there was no consensus.”

But early in the broadcast, Jennings relayed the latest polling swing toward the White House position: “A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that most Americans support attacking Iraq even if the United Nations opposes it. Two-thirds of Americans say they favor military action to remove Saddam Hussein. That number drops to 50 percent if there is United Nations opposition, but it rises to 57 percent if there is support from some U.S. allies even if the United Nations Security Council remains opposed.” So much for “no consensus about war.”

Slipping UN Support. On February 24, as President Bush decided to push another (“second”) UN resolution demanding Iraqi disarmament, ABC’s latest poll found public support for war remained steady at 63 percent. Langer’s Web report noted that four in ten surveyed supported war “strongly,” compared to only two in 10 who “strongly” oppose military action.

But on air, Peter Jennings mysteriously presented the ABC poll as grounds for slower action and more solicitude for the UN: “The President wants to move quickly on this. A number of other countries wish to go slowly or not at all. And in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll just finished, we find that 56 percent of Americans want the administration to take it slower and try harder to get more UN support. Even though, as you can see there, only 38 percent of Americans think the UN is doing a good job handling the situation.” After a report from Terry Moran, Jennings added: “Our new poll finds that President Bush’s approval rating for handling Iraq has slipped by six points to 55 percent.”

Let’s put those numbers closer together. The UN’s handling gets a 38 percent approval rating, while President Bush gets a 55 percent approval rating. For months, Peter Jennings painted a picture of Bush versus a world opposing his brash cowboy act, and now a poll showed more Americans approve of Bush than the UN. It’s too bad Jennings put a whole story between those numbers instead of reporting them side by side.

As for Jennings noting the slipping approval rating, he did not report on earlier burps up and down in that number: 58 percent approval in December, 50 percent on January 20, back up to 57 percent a week later.

By March 10, Jennings did not avoid reporting how a new ABC News poll found that “61 percent believe support from the UN Security Council is not necessary to attack.” He did not note that was up from 44 percent in January. A check of Langer’s Web report on the March 5-9 survey also revealed that the number for those who feel UN authorization is not necessary jumped to an impressive 71 percent “if allies participate.”