Monday, October 26, 2009

CNN's Non-News Polling Unchanged in Twenty Years

Alongside the news that newspaper circulation has dropped 10% we learned today that CNN, the originator of the Cable 24-news model has sunk by 50% year on year. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, and as someone who has done CNN no favors in the ratings department for many years, I'm not especially qualified to name them all. Nonetheless, thanks to my new job I'm now watching more CNN in years, and I can identify one problem, the persistence of the non-news poll that ostensibly provides an insight into how Americans understand the world, but in fact offers no insight, and worse obscures information that might actually increase Americans' understanding of the world.

Back when CNN was the only 24 News network in town, these polls were one of the least appealing aspects of the format, and having moved on myself long ago, I had forgotten just how damaging they are to the concept of news until I was reminded early last Tuesday morning when CNN announced that some 80% or so Americans believed Iran was seeking to obtain nuclear weapons. I don't doubt the veracity of the data, I'm sure an overwhelming number of Americans do believe Iran is actively working to obtain nuclear weapons and to be honest, I would probably have to count myself one of them. Nonetheless, it is not like the vast majority of Americans are experts either on nuclear proliferation or Iran, and hence what we think tells us little about the intentions of Iran's leadership. Worse, given that there has been next to no reporting on Iran's nuclear program that has not relied in some way on U.S. government sources that have made the case that Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons, all this poll tells us is that most Americans seem to believe what the government is telling them, at least on that issue, leaving the question of what Iranians hope to achieve by having nuclear weapons completely obscured. So while the assumption that Iranians chief concern is Israel is treated as axiomatic, the fact that Iran has a direct border with Pakistan, the only completely declared nuclear power in the middle East where as it would happen there is a strong current of anti-Shia violence. That fact, so easily ignored in all the handwringing about Iran's nuclear plans, would be far more useful information to the tens of thousands of CNN viewers, because it would have actually provided insight that many Americans have not gotten, and reporting like that would begin to renew and strengthen respect for CNN's coverage for more than a poll that can only be understood as a product and reflection of Washington's echo chamber.

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