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Wednesday, November 12, 2014


When MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, one of the chief architects of Obamacare referred, in a year-old video last week, to the "stupidity of the American voter" and a "lack of transparency" as critical to the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, it ignited a fire storm of outrage.

But was Gruber wrong when he made those off-the-cuff remarks about the American electorate at an academic conference in 2013?

Sadly, it appears that he may have been right in his assessment. According to at least two recent surveys, Americans are woefully ignorant when it comes to their country and its governance.

Ask them to name just one Supreme Court Justice and 65 percent can’t, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

It gets better. Ask Americans to name the three branches of their government and 36 percent of Americans can’t. Ask them to name just a single branch of government and 35 percent can’t even do that.

But in a nation consumed like no other with celebrity, ask Americans to reel off the names of the top rock stars, gansta rappers, Oscar favorites, superstars in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, and any number of mindless reality TV shows and their minions and guess what? You will have no problem getting an answer.

So while Gruber is being pilloried for his remarks, the sad truth is that he is right. American voters are stupid--or perhaps apathetic or indifferent are better descriptions.

Lying to them, as the Obama administration did when it was ramming Obamacare through Congress and down our throats, was viewed as an acceptable tactic. After all, they reasoned, Americans are too stupid to know what's good for them.

While such a conclusion may smack of just somebody's opinion, it was backed up last month in a groundbreaking survey by the U.K. research firm Ipsos MORI. That survey highlighted the political “ignorance” of 11,527 people across 14 countries

It found that Americans are second only to Italians in how little we understand our nations and the issues facing it. (See Graphic)

Here are a few of the questions asked and the results:

·       What percentage of the U.S. population identifies as Muslim?
Americans guessed: 15%.  Reality: 1%

·       What percentage of the population do you think are immigrants to America?
Americans guessed: 32%. Reality: 13%

·       Do you think this statement is true or false: The murder rate is rising in America
70 percent of Americans guessed: True . Reality: False

·       What percentage of American girls aged between 15 and 19 years give birth each year? Americans guessed: 23.9%. Reality: 3.1%

 Back in 2008, Rick Shenkman, the editor-in-chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled: Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter.

Shenkman found that most Americans were, among other things:

·       Ignorant about major international events

·       Knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it

·       Were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country

·       Were easily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble.

Shenkman found that Americans, when they do pay attention, do so when they perceive that an issue may impact them, their families or friends personally. That is not earth shattering, but it does say something about the fact that Americans, like it or not, are part of the global family.

I spent some two decades as a foreign correspondent, covering stories throughout Asia and Latin America. During that time I discovered that relatively few Americans had any understanding at all of the impact events and policies in places like China or Japan can have on their lives.

For example, when products are manufactured more inexpensively in China or India or Vietnam that often means higher paid Americans lose their jobs.

When rapacious government policies allow a Chinese steel company to export its products at a price that is lower in the American market than the price charged in the domestic Chinese market, and thereby unfairly undercut American steel makers, that is called "dumping."

What most Americans may not know is that dumping is legal under World Trade Organization rules unless the aggrieved foreign country can demonstrate the negative impact of the exporting company on domestic producers. In order to counter dumping, most nations use tariffs and quotas to protect their domestic industry from the negative effects of predatory pricing.

But let's get back to that Ipsos MORI survey and Gruber's unflattering characterization of the American voter.

We often decry the quality of elected officials today. But what about the quality of voters?

How can we make informed decisions about places like Iraq and Iran, organizations like ISIS, government spending, and societal issues if we have no understanding of the essential specifics involved?

American educator and philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins may have said it best:

"The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Students Support First Amendment Freedoms More Than Adults

There is a reason the very first amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1791 dealt with issues such as freedom of speech, the press, religion, the right of peaceful assembly and the right to redress grievances via government petition.

The founding fathers viewed those freedoms and rights as critical to a functioning democracy. Without them a government could exercise almost total control over its people.

Americans often talk about the First Amendment without really knowing what it says. Here is a refresher for those who may have forgotten the wording:

"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."

It was heartening to me a few weeks ago when a national study of 10,463 high school students and 588 teachers funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that students are more supportive of the First Amendment than adults and that increased digital news consumption and classroom teaching are driving the change.

It makes me wonder if adults have become blasé about the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment--or worse.

When I hear people suggest that government should "reign in the media" or curb speech they don't like or agree with, it's like suggesting that government chip away at the foundation of the Capitol Building. Eventually, with enough chipping the building will collapse and with enough "reigning in" of the First Amendment we will find ourselves unable to speak or publish freely.

So it was encouraging that these students apparently understand the value of freedom of the press and speech when it comes to opinions they don't agree with.

"Student use of social, mobile and digital media to consume news is at all-time highs, and so is student support of the First Amendment," said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of Knight Foundation. "The most supportive students of all are heavy digital media users who also have had a class explaining the First Amendment."

The study, the fifth in a series of national surveys of high school students and teachers commissioned by the Knight Foundation during the past 10 years, holds important implications for the future of the First Amendment. Courts interpret the meaning of the first amendment within the context of public opinion.

Here are a few key findings of the Knight Study:

●      High school students are showing more appreciation for the First Amendment than adults. Only 24 percent of students said that the First Amendment goes too far in guaranteeing the rights of religion, speech, press assembly and petition. In comparison, a Newseum Institute survey that tracks adult opinions on the first amendment showed that 38 percent of adults feel this way. This marks a shift: 10 years ago students (35 percent) were more likely than adults (30 percent) to say that the First Amendment goes too far.

●      More students than ever before are showing support for the First Amendment: Nine in 10 students surveyed said that “people should be able to express unpopular opinions,” and 60 percent oppose government surveillance of online information and phone calls even to identify terrorists.

●      Both digital news consumption and First Amendment appreciation are growing among high school students. Seventy-one percent of students said they read news online daily; in 2006 only 31 percent said they got news and information from the Internet several times per week. And while only eight percent of students reported consuming news and information daily through mobile devices in 2007, the latest report shows 62 percent of students now use mobile for this purpose—the highest level measured by the survey.

●      Digital media works hand-in-hand with the classroom. First Amendment support is highest among students who had a class that dealt with the First Amendment and used digital media on a regular basis. For example, 65 percent of the students who use digital news daily agreed strongly that people should be able to express unpopular opinions, but if they had a First Amendment-related class, the strong support for free speech rose to 69 percent.

●      Most teachers do not support free expression for students creating content about their schools. In a generational divide, the majority of teachers disagree that First Amendment rights should apply to school activities. For example, 57 percent of teachers feel that students should not be allowed to report on controversial issues in student newspapers and 67 percent say that students should not be allowed to express their opinions about teachers and school administrators on Facebook without penalty.

Obviously, there is a parting of the ways when it comes to press and speech freedom for students.

When I was the Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois I also happened to be a member of the board of the non-profit Illini Media Company--the student run newspaper that serves the university community.

Thankfully, the Illini Media Company was not a constituent of the University--though its student editors and reporters were.

Did the Daily Illini occasionally make some errors in judgment? Did it sometimes print a story that was not entirely accurate? Did it criticize the University of Illinois administration on occasion?

Yes, yes and yes. It did all of those things. But it corrected its errors and it responsibly recognized, clarified and apologized for its inaccuracies.

But one thing it never did, was kowtow to the University administration when that august body was angry about a Daily Illini story that it didn't approve of.

And that is exactly what "reigning in the media" would mean for press freedom in this country.
As Finley Peter Dunne once said about the media: they should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

But beyond that, they should use the power of the First Amendment to be an unbiased and responsible watchdog of government and in so doing, speak and act on behalf of the people.

Because if the media do not, who will?

Here is a link to the survey: