Oct 1 2005

ABC’s Antiwar ‘Reality Check’

World News Tonight minimizes support for withdrawal

With Cindy Sheehan’s protest outside George W. Bush’s Texas ranch finally bringing a bit of media attention to the antiwar movement, some mainstream media outlets seem determined to marginalize such activism.

On August 25, ABC World News Tonight anchor Charles Gibson asked, “People may tell pollsters they oppose the war, but are they part of any real antiwar movement? We asked ABC‘s Dan Harris to take a reality check on the depth of sentiment against the war.”

Harris began his “reality check” with this:

For months, Americans have been telling pollsters that going to war was a mistake. But that does not necessarily add up to a major antiwar movement. While Cindy Sheehan gets a lot of media attention, only 13 percent of Americans, according to the latest ABC News poll, want an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, which may be why the public protests thus far have been relatively small.

Leaving aside Harris’ claim that Sheehan–virtually ignored until she camped out outside Bush’s vacation home in Crawford, Texas–gets “a lot” of media attention, it’s true that polls have shown a majority in the U.S. calling the invasion of Iraq a “mistake” (e.g., 53 percent in a August 22-24 AP/Ipsos poll, 54 percent in a August 5-7 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll). But ABC‘s suggestion that a much smaller fraction opposes the ongoing war is highly misleading.

The 13 percent figure that Harris cites is derived from a two-month-old Washington Post/ABC News poll, taken June 23-26, which asked, “Do you think the number of U.S. military forces in Iraq should be increased, decreased, or kept about the same?” The 38 percent who said “decreased” were then asked, “Should all U.S. forces in Iraq be withdrawn immediately, or should they be decreased, but not all withdrawn immediately?” Thirty-four percent of this sub-group voted “withdrawn immediately.” Thirty-four percent of 38 percent is 13 percent.

Any poll result derived in such a roundabout manner should be viewed skeptically. And indeed, there was a more straightforward question getting at the same issue earlier in the very same poll:

Do you think the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties; or, do you think the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there?

With the question posed that way, 41 percent chose the “withdrawal” option—not a majority, but much higher than the marginal 13 percent that ABC News highlighted. (Note that few more respondents supported withdrawal than were in favor of decreasing the number of troops. This illustrates the problem of measuring support for immediate withdrawal as a subset of those who want to decrease troop numbers.)

And surveys more current than that two-month-old “latest ABC News poll” illustrated substantially more support for withdrawal–either gradual or immediate.

An August 9 Gallup poll showed 33 percent support for withdrawing all U.S. troops now and 23 percent support for bringing some of the troops home. And an August 25 Harris Poll, released the same day as ABC‘s newscast, found that 61 percent of respondents favored bringing most U.S. troops “home in the next year,” versus 36 percent who wished to “wait for a stable government.”

Given those findings, it seems that ABC preferred its own aged poll simply because it fit the agenda of the report–namely, to suggest that there is no significant antiwar feeling in the country. Harris carried that dubious point further by claiming that the apparently slim support for troop withdrawal “may be why the public protests thus far have been relatively small.” That depends on what “relatively small” might mean. The worldwide demonstrations against the war on February 15, 2003 attracted millions to the streets to protest a looming invasion of Iraq. And over 1,600 vigils in support of Cindy Sheehan were held around the county on August 17. Moveon.org, the group that organized these events, reported that hundreds of thousands of Americans participated.

ABC‘s Harris closed in typical mainstream media form by suggesting that grassroots activism is less important than the political establishment: “While pop songs might reflect the public mood, it may take a politician with a real plan to truly mobilize people.” If history is any guide, the people will mobilize the politicians to oppose the war, not the other way around.