Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Column on "The American People" (w/correction)

What?s it with ?The American People??

Tibor R. Machan

Too many media people seem to revel in this, at least judging by the
various reporters discussing the forthcoming Supreme Court nominee and the
Karl Rove fracas. I am talking about the constant references to ?the
American people,? or ?Americans.? A poll is taken, involving some 1000
people out of around 150 million, and suddenly these reporters?for
example, John King of CNN?know what the American people think, want, wish
for, approve of, disapprove of and the like. These reporters are
notoriously loose about the use of this phrase. (Mr. King is also very
happy to routinely provide information about what unnamed but supposedly
important people think about innumerable issues. Frankly, I think he is
just telling us what he thinks without admitting to this.)

Anyway, I don?t know about you, but when someone refers to ?the American
people,? I tend to check with the one nearest me, namely, myself, and see
if what is being said about this bunch of individual human beings squares
with the report. You may have guessed?it rarely if ever does. By what
reasoning, then, does it turn out to be such a confidently and frequently
used phrase? Has the science of poll taking been perfected so much that
from asking a bunch of heavily loaded questions of a few folks via the
phone and getting their input, a firm, confident conclusion can be reached
about what the American people think? I very seriously doubt it.

But never mind me, for a moment. This country is awash with about 150
million adults, from enormously varied backgrounds and with a wide variety
of points of view on everything from the quality of movies or education to
the merits of politicians and various proposed public policies. All the
fuss about diversity should alone testify to this, not to mention the
hullabaloo about multiculturalism. From its earliest days, America has
been populated by people from many backgrounds and with a wide variety of
opinions, yet somehow the bulk of big media reporters don?t care about
that at all. They treat the polls uncritically as representative of what
can only amount to a fictional entity, ?the American people.?

Is this all accidental? Are these reporters simply stupid? Are the
interpreters of the polls, like Bill Schneider?one of the ever-present
media wonks?naïve? Or may we speculate that they are stacking the deck in
favor of certain suppositions they like which then can make their reports
and speculations seem well grounded? I think the answer is fairly obvious.

The plain truth seems to be that these media folk have no interested at
all in learning what the American people think or want or whatever. To do
so, they would actually have to go out and gather information from, yes,
the American people. And these people, in all their diversity and variety,
would tell them something far more complicated and complex than what they
wish to believe about them. There would not be just one idea about Mr.
Rove or what kind of jurists should be put on the US Supreme Court. No,
there would be hundreds if not thousands of ideas about these and
thousands of other matters that media is professional sworn to report on.
But instead of going about its task with due diligence, with competence
and conscientiousness, the reporters engage in malpractice, plain and
simple. They ?report? on the views of a mythical beast, if you will, that
can then be enlisted to peddle whatever opinion they like to peddle.

I bet that most of the American people haven?t figured out just what is
the matter with Karl Rove and all this outing of (it appears) an inactive
CIA person who, from what I have learned, was never quite named. Most of
the American people appear to me to have much better things to do with
their limited time than fret about this issue.

As to whom Bush should nominate for the US Supreme Court, I don?t know
how many Americans really care about this. I do, but until I get some clue
who are the prospective nominees, I will not dwell on the topic a whole
lot. I, too, have other tasks to attend to, tasks my busy life offers up
quite readily. So, when Mr. King and Mr. Schneider report on the views of
?the American people,? I find them to be engaging in fancy, not news
reporting. But it isn?t likely to be accidental.

It seems, as already suggested, to have a goal, namely, to support an
agenda. In the case of the Karl Rove fracas, this agenda seems to be to
make it appear that everyone in the country is outraged by the shenanigans
of the Bush administration. And in the case of the Supreme Court
nomination, it seems to be that everyone is dead set against Bush getting
one of his favorite selections on the court.

Or maybe these guys are stupid and naïve, not pushing an agenda. Maybe
they do believe in the fairy tale of ?the American people.? Maybe they do
overhear some folks chatting in a lavatory and think this is reliable news
material that their viewers and listeners must be told about (from
?unnamed sources?). Maybe it is the artificiality of the media business
itself, with its manufactured urgency about everything, even stuff that no
one in his or her right mind can think is really urgent. (After all,
although news reports are strictly scheduled, actually newsworthy stuff
isn?t, so one can appreciate the need for cooking the news.)

Still, I would argue that it is not professional for journalists, big or
small media types, to avoid the hard task of learning what the multitude
and diverse American public thinks, believes, wants and so forth, in favor
of a simplistic reference to ?the American people,? as if such a being
really existed.