Public Opinion on the Iraq War
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TERENCE SMITH: To assess that opinion we turn to a pollster, Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and to three newspaper ombudsmen, or reader representatives who hear directly from readers about the news and how it is covered. They are Michael Getler of the Washington Post; Lou Gelfand of the Minneapolis-Star Tribune; and Sanders Lamont of the Sacramento Bee. Welcome to all of you.
Andy, let me start with you and ask you based on your polls and the other polls that have been done in recent days, how the public feels this war is going at this point.
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, there has been a change in public opinion. We’re all doing daily tracking polls. The public is getting this 24/7. In the first few days when it looked like we might have killed Saddam Hussein, we’re negotiating with the generals on cell phones and maybe there is not a battle of Baghdad, we were getting 80 percent, close to 80 percent saying this is going very well. One day later, Sunday, we had casualties, first prisoners of war, drops to 50 percent — more casualties by the next day, more prisoners of war, it is at 40 percent. We’ve had about 40 percent saying it is going very well with almost as many saying fairly well.
The optimism about the war has changed. The Washington Post has people saying it is not going to take weeks; it’s going to take months. That’s the new consensus view, and the public is much more inclined to see this as a long war rather than a short, easy Gulf War model of war. But throughout these daily polls each night we get 70 percent saying that we made the right decision; 70 percent saying we approve of the way the president is handling — dealing with this war.
TERENCE SMITH: So that number, that 70 percent, has that stayed constant?
ANDREW KOHUT: It stayed constant once it went up in response to the start of the war. It went from the 55-60 level to 70 percent, and even though the public sees it as a tougher war, it’s more worried about the way it is going, the public for now, at least, with all of these 24/7 images, which is aren’t so pleasant, is sticking with the president, sticking with the decision to go to war.
TERENCE SMITH: And the president himself, the approval rating of the president broadly?
ANDREW KOHUT: Jumped up to 70 percent. It stayed there and for now, the public is with the president. They are with the decision.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. You have also done some polling, I know, on the question of the media’s coverage of the war and how much people have confidence in what they see and what the reporting is.
ANDREW KOHUT: The public is giving the media good grades, not great grades. About 75 percent are giving it a positive rating, just about what it was getting in the Gulf War. But interestingly, not a better rating than it was getting during the Gulf War, even though we have all of this embedding, we have all of this coverage, the public is saying we’re largely getting a straight story from the media. In fact, a few more are saying that we’re getting a more straight story from the military, but by in large, the public likes the coverage so far at least.
TERENCE SMITH: And I know you’ve also tried to assess the psychological impact on people of watching this war, 24/7 and following it as closely as they seem to be.
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, yes. And here is where the daily tracking polls are interesting because we’ve seen the percentage of people saying I’m saddened by the war go up, from the beginning to the middle, to the end, the number of people who say they are sad, they are tired out, they are tired by watching this stuff, and the number of people who say, they are depressed. We have close to 40 percent now saying they are depressed by the war. There is a real psychological toll when one is constantly confronted with this stuff. The question is will they stay tuned, or will they just become more depressed. It is clear though that it is having an impact on the American psyche, all of this war coverage.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Getler of the Washington Post, you hear directly from readers of your paper. Do they reflect some of these sentiments that Andy is talking about?
MICHAEL GETLER: Actually they do, it’s an interesting poll and fairly accurate, quite accurate actually based on my experience. The — people usually do not write to an ombudsman to praise; they write to complain. But we actually are getting, I have been receiving more complimentary mail from readers since the war has started.
I think people appreciate the coverage and especially the fact that correspondents are with units in which a lot of sons and daughters and spouses around the country are attached. People write from all across the country to praise the correspondents who are bringing them news of their particular units, so people like that a lot.
The mail is fairly heavy. It is actually not, I have been surprised, not as heavy as some other periods, for example the period during the election recount. I think the mail was heavier. And it was actually more polarized and had kind of a nastier edge to it. I think what that reflects, frankly, is that again as Andy’s poll shows that a very large chunk of people understand what is going on, they can an absorb this; they understand there are going to be ups and downs. And they take that into account.
The mail that we do get that’s critical, tends to be, I think, from people who were anti-war, anti-Bush beforehand, and they continue to feel that way. The mail that I get that is more supportive of the administration’s policies and the war aim — that tends to be, there is less of that, actually. And it tends to be focused on specific stories which some people think are either unpatriotic or defeatist, or they could be stories about whether you write about an Iraqi family or suffering or some military piece which is not attributed by name, things of that nature, that gets people upset.
TERENCE SMITH: Lou Gelfand, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, you’ve been at this some time as an ombudsman and hearing from people. How does what you are hearing fit in with all of this?
LOU GELFAND: I second the motion with the gentleman from the Post. The embedding has brought the reader and the newspaper closer together.
TERENCE SMITH: You are talking about the embedding of correspondents with actual units in the field?
LOU GELFAND: Yes, sir. We ran a photograph this past week of an Iraqi prisoner, being examined by a marine surgical unit. The surgical unit had all of its equipment on including the masks. The prisoner was denuded– the picture was taken by our photographer from the rear. We had almost 20 complaints saying that it was humiliating to the prisoner, and this would not fare well when our prisoners are treated by the Iraqis. The point of the picture was, that the prisoners are — have been found to have contaminants, and so the surgical team has taken — is protecting itself. But the interesting thing about it was that the members of the marine detachment and our photographer with e-mails were able to explain all of this and it ran in the Sunday column.
I think in this case, with our people with the troops, it has brought us closer together, our readers, to understand what goes on out there because our people in the field are very sensitive to these inquiries, whereas if we didn’t have our people out there, I’m not sure we could get back the same kind of information as quickly as we’re getting.
TERENCE SMITH: Sanders LaMont what are you hearing in Sacramento?
SANDERS LA MONT: Well, much the same. We’re hearing from people that have convictions that preceded the war and they carried them into the war. People have participated in demonstrations and never believed those particular demonstrations have enough attention. So to some degree, we’re hearing from the people on either side, either anti-war or pro-administration positions. We have heard summary action, strong reaction to photographs, which have high impact of the way people are treated, questioning whether it should be done a certain way. But for the most part, when people call to talk about other things, they are satisfied with the report on the war for the most part but we do hear from both sides.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Getler, when you talked about some of the things the readers applauded, what have they objected to in the coverage?
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, keep in mind this is relatively small numbers of readers for a very large newspaper, a large circulation newspaper. Some of the things that they have objected to, for example, last Thursday, the Post had a front page story that the war could last months rather than weeks — that it could be a longer campaign and that you couldn’t really bypass southern Iraq and you were getting resistance where it was not forecast or at least described initially. And that story was largely written from officers and others who were not named. So people attack that story as sort of defeatist kind of story, and it was vulnerable because some of the sourcing on it was not named. On the other hand, I thought that it was a carefully written story. There were people quoted on the record who presented the other side to that case.
TERENCE SMITH: But you said defeatist. I mean, is that a complaint?
MICHAEL GETLER: Yes, absolutely.
TERENCE SMITH: That one hears that this is too negative?
MICHAEL GETLER: Yes, exactly. And the fact of the matter is, I mean, since that story appeared, immediately afterward, there was an interview by both the Washington Post and The New York Times with the commander of the fifth corps in the region who said, essentially the same things. And other officers have gone on record to say, yes, there have been maybe the assumptions were a bit too optimistic about what lies ahead.
TERENCE SMITH: But this suggests, Andy, the readers are very sensitive on this issue on how it is being played in the media and whether it is being fairly represented and the U.S. situation is fairly represented.
ANDREW KOHUT: Absolutely. And I think that the — most of the criticism of the press is coming from the other direction, not the direction that Mike is representing. What we’re finding is that people who were opponents of the war, the 25 percent compared to the 70 percent, the 25 percent are more critical of the press coverage than the 75 percent who approve of the war or support the war.
TERENCE SMITH: Critical on the basis that –
ANDREW KOHUT: Critical on the basis they think the press is promoting the war. They don’t like the war and they don’t like the messenger. And my guess is that there is some concern that the coverage is promoting the war. The other thing that we see is that a growing number of Americans are saying there is too much coverage, we’ve heard too much about the anti–war voices and it was just the opposite before the war when the public was saying we’ve heard too little from these people. But now we have more people, a plurality of people saying we’ve heard too much.
TERENCE SMITH: Lou Gelfand, you are hearing either of those two accusations?
LOU GELFAND: We’re getting a lot of complaints from people on both sides still upset that we’re not covering their protest rallies sufficiently enough. Just last week, there were 20 thousand people who attended a support-your-troops rally, and our reporter came back and in the last three paragraphs of a column-long story, mentioned that some of the people in the audience were — had a one-line slurs about Muslims; a woman called me the next day and said she was with a crowd of 35 friends who went to hear the rally and they scattered out throughout the audience didn’t and not one of them heard any of these slurs that our reporter had put in his story and thought that he had fabricated it. That’s the kind of complaint that I run into.
TERENCE SMITH: Sanders LaMont, what about you, on the complaint side?
SANDERS LA MONT: I think the complaints we’re hearing tend to be more from supporters of the war than opponents. And I think that the opponent voice is what Michael mentioned, that the media is being used by the administration, and that’s fairly a common criticism from anti-war people. And I think that the criticism from the pro-Bush people is that, the emphasis is on the negative. We ran a picture earlier in the week of Iraqi casualty and some people were incensed by that and felt it shouldn’t have been done. Somehow it is unpatriotic to show these people.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Michael Getler, part of your job is to stand back a bit and be a judge of sorts as to fairness and completeness of the coverage of the Washington Post. How do you grade your own paper at this point?
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, I give them very high marks.
TERENCE SMITH: On these issues of fairness and balance?
MICHAEL GETLER: Yes, and coverage of the war, of the combat once it starred. I think that they have been quite professional, quite authoritative, and I think that’s what draws some of the people who are sort of pro-administration and pro-war and they see questioning kinds of stories, challenging stories. I think the fact is they are quite authoritative because the reporters are quite good and well connected, and a lot of experience covering the military and I think that draws more criticism than otherwise mind the case. But it is quite — the coverage on the hole, I think is very good.
TERENCE SMITH: Any, any sense from your polling where people are getting their news about this war? Is it television, is it newspapers, Internet, where is it?
ANDREW KOHUT: Primarily television, primarily cable — but secondarily, and pretty substantially, newspapers. A third of the people we interviewed say they are reading newspapers more; 30 percent are principally relying on newspapers so, I mean, there’s a hunger for information about this war, and people are getting it in lots of different ways. I mean, this is like what we saw during the Gulf War, like what we saw in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The public wants to know, and it is trying all of the ways it can to find out about this war. The real issue is, coping with the information overload because there is so much of it and it’s beginning to be harmful to people.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Thank you, gentlemen, all of you, very much.