Thursday, February 17, 2011

Where’s Joe Friday When We Need Him?

Kenneth M. O’Brien

Back in the late 1950’s there was a TV series called Dragnet. It was one of the first serialized police dramas. It starred Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday. His classic catch phrase when questioning a witness was, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

We might well wish that those who dominate the public airwaves (or those on cable and satellite) conformed to the same standards.

A study issued by, a program managed the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland on December 10, 2010, titled Misinformation and the 2010 Election, demonstrates clearly the extent to which media distortion of factual information affects voter opinion.

The study addressed a number of specific issues and set a baseline of expert opinion on the “truth” related to each of the issues. As the study explained it, “In the course of this study, to identify “misinformation” among voters, we used as reference points the conclusions of key government agencies that are run by professional experts and have a strong reputation for being immune to partisan influences. These include the Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Commerce, and the National Academy of Sciences. We also noted efforts to survey elite opinion, such as the regular survey of economists conducted by the Wall Street Journal; however, we only used this as supporting evidence for what constitutes expert opinion.”

The key issues raised were described as follows:

”The poll found strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the issues prominent in the election campaign, including the stimulus legislation, the healthcare reform law, TARP, the state of the economy, climate change, campaign contributions by the US Chamber of Commerce and President Obama’s birthplace. In particular, voters had perceptions about the expert opinion of economists and other scientists that were quite different from actual expert opinion.
Many of the issues on which voters had significant misinformation were ones that voters said were significant in shaping their voting behavior. Respondents were asked to rate eleven different issues that were prominent in the election campaign on a 0-10 scale, with 0 meaning the issue was “not important at all” “in deciding how to vote,” and 10 meaning the issue was “extremely important.” All of the topics explored below had a mean score above 5. “

The state of the economy
The unemployment rate
The healthcare reform act passed by Congress
The size of the budget deficit
The package of Congressional legislation designed to stimulate the economy, also known as the stimulus bill
The amount of federal income taxes you pay
The government bailout of banks and financial institutions, also known as TARP
The war in Afghanistan
The proposed cap and trade bill designed to address climate change
The bailout program for Chrysler and General Motors
The possibility that large amounts of foreign money were being used by the US Chamber of Commerce to influence the election

The factual standards employed to evaluate voter opinion were as follows:

1. “Effect of Stimulus Legislation
The Congressional Budget Office prepares regular estimates on the effects of the stimulus on employment. In November 2010, the CBO issued the latest in a series of reports estimating the impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), as the act itself requires. CBO concluded that for the third quarter of 2010, ARRA had “increased the number of full time-equivalent jobs by 2.0 to 5.2 million compared to what those amounts would have been otherwise.”
Since 2003, the Wall Street Journal has maintained a panel of 55-60 economists which it questions regularly, in an effort to move beyond anecdotal reporting of expert opinion. The panel was frequently asked questions about the financial crisis as it unfolded. In March 2010 the panel was asked more broadly about the effect of the ARRA on growth. Seventy-five percent said it was a net positive.”

2. “The Healthcare Reform Law’s Effect on the Deficit
In March 2010 CBO released an estimate of how the then-pending health care legislation would affect the deficit if passed. CBO calculated that the net effect through 2019 would be to reduce the deficit by $124 billion (this figure excludes the education provisions that were also part of the legislation). Beyond 2019, the CBO estimated that the Affordable Care Act would reduce the deficit by roughly 0.5% of GDP.
Regarding Medicare’s contribution to the overall budget deficit, the 2010 annual report of the Boards of Trustees of the Medicare trust funds stated that ‘The financial status of the HI (Hospital Insurance) trust fund is substantially improved by the lower expenditures and additional tax revenues instituted by the Affordable Care Act. These changes are estimated to postpone the exhaustion of HI trust fund assets from 2017 under the prior law to 2029 under current law and to 2028 under the alternative scenario’ (a model that made harsher assumptions). The trustees assessed that overall, ‘The Affordable Care Act improves the financial outlook for Medicare substantially,’ “

3. “Status of the Economy
The US Bureau of Economic Analysis concluded in September 2010 that the recession had ended in June 2009. “In determining that a trough occurred in June 2009, the [Business Cycle Dating] Committee did not conclude that economic conditions since that month have been favorable or that the economy has returned to operating at normal capacity,” the bureau said. “Rather, the committee determined only that the recession ended and a recovery began in that month.”
At the time the poll was conducted, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis had recently made its first estimate of growth in 2010’s third quarter and put it at 2.0%. On November 23 (shortly after the poll), the Bureau revised its estimate to 2.5%. The Bureau also reported that overall personal income increased 0.5% in October. Private wage and salary disbursements increased $33 billion in October, compared with an increase of $8 billion in September.”

4. “Status of Scientific Consensus on Climate Change
In 2005 the United States’ National Academies of Science joined the national science academies of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom in making a joint statement about all aspects of the climate change issue. As to the reality of climate change, the academies stated: ‘Carbon dioxide levels have increased from 280 ppm in 1750 to over 375 ppm today – higher than any previous levels that can be reliably measured (i.e. in the last 420,000 years). Increasing greenhouse gases are causing temperatures to rise; the Earth’s surface warmed by approximately 0.6 centigrade degrees over the twentieth century.’
The US Congress in 2008 requested The National Academy of Sciences to research climate change. The NAS’s information base, in turn, rests in great part on climate change research that was mandated by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 and has been conducted by various government departments and agencies.
In April 2010 the Proceedings of the NAS published a study of expert opinion, “Expert credibility in climate change,” which found—after surveying the publications of 1,372 climate researchers—that ‘97% of self-identified actively publishing climate scientists agree with the tenets of ACC [anthropogenic climate change].’
In May 2010 the NAS released its most recent report, which stated: ‘Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems. This conclusion is based on a substantial array of scientific evidence, including recent work, and is consistent with the conclusions of recent assessments by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, and other assessments of the state of knowledge on climate change.’ “

5.. “TARP’s Origins
The Troubled Assets Relief Program was initially proposed by President Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. on September 19, 2008. The Program was proposed to bail out banks and financial institutions involved in the subprime mortgage crisis, which was bringing on a crisis of confidence manifested in severe stock exchange drops in the United States and worldwide. A slightly altered version won the support first of the Senate, on Oct. 1, and of the House, on Oct. 3. President Bush quickly signed the bill, called the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act.
The Senate passed the bill 74-25 (with one abstention) on October 1st, 2008. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans voted in favor: Democrats (39 yeas, 9 nays, 1 abstention), Republicans (34 yeas, 16 nays).
The House passed the bill with Senate amendments with a vote of 263 in favor and 171 opposed on October 3, 2008. A large majority of Democrats voted in favor (172 yeas, 63 nays), while Republicans leaned negative despite a large number in favor (91 yeas, 108 nays).
Shortly afterward, Secretary Paulson decided to use the $250 billion in the first round of funds allocated by Congress not to buy toxic assets, but to inject cash directly into banks by purchasing shares.”
6.  Origins and Structure of the GM-Chrysler Bailout
The report of the Congressional Oversight Panel of TARP gives the following account of the origins of the GM-Chrysler bailout under President Bush:
‘The financial crisis weakened American automakers even further, constricting credit and reducing demand, turning their long-term slump into an acute crisis. By early December, Chrysler and General Motors (GM) could no longer secure the credit they needed to conduct their day-to-day operations. Unless they could raise billions of dollars in new financing, they faced collapse… The Bush Administration then announced that it would consider making TARP funds available to the automotive industry – a reversal of its previous stance that automakers were ineligible to receive TARP assistance – and on December 19 announced that Chrysler and GM would both receive TARP funds.’
The initial allocation under the Bush administration was $17.4 billion. Later under the Obama administration an additional $63 billion was made available. The government required both companies to go through orderly bankruptcies as a condition of continued assistance. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Treasury ‘agreed to exchange the debt positions it held in the original companies for a blend of debt, equity, and preferred shares” in the post-bankruptcy companies. As of November 2010, the companies had repurchased roughly $11 billion in debt. After the election, General Motors made an initial public offering in which the Treasury sold some of its shares, generating $12 billion.’ “

7. “Claims Regarding the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Funds Raised Abroad
The site which major news organizations frequently depend for investigation of questionable campaign assertions—stated on October 11, 2010 that ‘no evidence has been produced’ that would support the claim that foreign money was used for political ads. Also on October 11, the site PolitiFact (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009) stated that ‘no one has offered any evidence that the Chamber of Commerce is not complying with that law’ (which bars the use of foreign funds in US campaigns), and cited an attorney for the Campaign Legal Center: ‘The law of the land right now is that if an organization like the Chamber of Commerce is using generally accepted accounting principles to show that you are not using foreign money to finance regulated activities, then you're in the clear.’ “

8. “Income Tax Changes During the Obama Administration
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted in February 2009, was designed so that $288 billion of the full $787 billion would take the form of tax cuts: $237 billion toward individuals and $51 billion for businesses. Among the largest items for individuals was a payroll tax credit ($116 billion) for those earning less than $75,000. Businesses were allowed to use current losses to offset profits made during the last five years (instead of two), making many eligible for tax refunds ($15 billion).
Thus approximately one-third of the economic stimulus initiated in 2009 came in the form of tax reductions. 16 The Tax Policy Center estimates that the Obama tax cuts saved 97% of U.S. households an average of $1,179 in 2009 (the program continued in 2010).
Tax cuts were delivered by lowering tax withheld from paychecks over time. The Obama administration’s Making Work Pay credit and its expansion of the earned income credit were both built into the tax tables. Making Work Pay was administered by reducing withholding, and the earned income credit at the time tax returns were filed on April 15. The administration also extended the patch on the alternative minimum tax.”

9. “Troop Levels in Afghanistan
The Obama administration has increased US troop levels in Afghanistan in two stages. In 2008 there were about 33, 000 US troops in Afghanistan; as of November there were 90,000.”

10. “Obama’s Birth
The claim that Obama was not born within the United States was proven to be false in 2008. Researchers for the site examined the physical birth certificate authenticated by the state of Hawaii and provided an exhaustive account of it, together with five photographs from various angles. Factcheck’s article also reproduces the birth announcement that Barack Obama’s parents posted in the Sunday edition of the Honolulu Advertiser on August 13, 1961.”

The findings of the study, as they related to voter misinformation on each topic, were as follows:

” For each topic, the news source with the lowest level of misinformation among its daily consumers was as follows:
·    most economists who have studied it estimate that the stimulus legislation saved  or created only a few jobs or caused job losses: MSNBC, 65% misinformed
·    among economists who have estimated the effect of the health reform law, more  think it will increase the deficit: Public broadcasting (NPR or PBS), 38%
·    the bank bailout legislation (TARP) was passed and signed into law under Pres. Obama: MSNBC, 38%
·    the US economy is getting worse: Public broadcasting (NPR or PBS), 34%
·    the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts: MSNBC, 34%
·    the bailout of GM and Chrysler occurred under President Obama only: MSNBC, 32%
·    since January 2009 the respondent’s federal income taxes have actually gone up: MSNBC, 27%
·    it is unclear whether Obama was born in the US—or, Obama was not born in the  US: Public broadcasting (NPR or PBS), 24%
·    when TARP came up for a vote, Democrats were opposed or divided: Fox News, 21%
·    when TARP came up for a vote, most Republicans opposed it: CNN, 28%
·    it was proven that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending foreign money to back Republicans: Fox News, 23%
·    most scientists think climate change is not occurring or views are divided evenly: MSNBC and public broadcasting (NPR or PBS), both 20%

This suggests that misinformation cannot simply be attributed to news sources, but are part of the larger information environment that includes statements by candidates, political ads and so on.”

Finally, the study found that, of all the news outlets that it studied, the one whose viewers had the highest level of misinformation were those who were regular viewers of Fox News.

” Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that:

·    most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)

·    most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)

·    the economy is getting worse (26 points)

·    most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)

·    the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)

·    their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)

·    the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)

·    when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)

·    and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)

These effects increased incrementally with increasing levels of exposure and all were statistically significant. The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it--though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.”

Those who wish to read the full report and evaluate it without editorial intermediation can find it at

Perhaps nothing is more disheartening than the observation made by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” on December 16 that more coverage was given to the plight of 9/11 first responders and the so-called “Zadruga Bill” on Al Jazeera than on any domestic network.
To see the Al Jazeera video, go to

Perhaps we can revise the Simon and Garfunkel classic, “Mrs. Robinson” to say “Where have you gone Joe Friday, our nation turns their misled minds to you.”

We certainly need someone who wants, “Just the facts.”

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