Well, it turns out there weren't so many voters in Iraq on Jan. 30 as we were led to believe.  --  Gee, that's what UFPPC's Fred Moreau was saying Sunday night.  --  It's not good to say I told you so, but if the editor of Editor & Publisher is not above doing so, why should UFPPC's Fred Moreau be? ...


By Fred Moreau

United for Peace of Pierce County (WA)
February 4, 2005

It's hard to resist gloating.

But now that the "up to 8 million Iraqi voters" hype is being discredited, if Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher is not above crowing that "I questioned those figures as early as last Sunday,"[1] we can't resist point out that so did we!

The point about even the approximate number of Iraqi voters is simple: "Nobody knows," writes the Editor & Publisher editor & columnist.

Gee, we said the same thing — we didn't even go to journalism school.

What is amusing about Mr. Mitchell's piece is his pious suggestion that this could have occurred through some sort of slip-up, some sort of "forgetting": "[H]as the American media (as it did two years ago in the hyping of Saddam's WMDs) forgotten core journalistic principles in regard to fact-checking and weighing partisan assertions?"

Tsk, tsk: boys in the bus will be boys in the bus. Or perhaps he's just being polite.

The problem with analysis in establishment organs like Editor & Publisher is that even when they get up enough gumption to ask some good questions — here, "why is the press so confident?" and "If the commission expected close to 8 million, and that's what happened — and there was less violence on election day than anticipated — why was the turnout greeted as such a surprise?" — they don't seem to be able answer them.

A good first approximation of the answers, we suggest, can be found in what Herman & Chomsky call their "propaganda model of media," according to which there are five 'filters' in society that determine what is news: (1) corporate ownership; (2) advertising; (3) "a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest"; (4) 'flak,' i.e. "negative responses to a media statement or [TV or radio] program"; (5) 'anti-communism'.

This model has the great virtue of plausibly accounting for the fact that the mainstream media is both so ostensibly free and so unable to provide the public the information and perspectives it needs — unable, for example, in the current context, to refrain from parroting the inane absurdities relentlessly proferred by administration officials and their shills in foreign client states.

We shouldn't be so hard on Greg Mitchell, though.

Last year in his blog PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine, Jay Rosen of NYU's Dept. of Journalism summed up Mitchell's background: "For eight years (1971 to 1979) [Greg Mitchell] was executive editor of the famed counterculture and music magazine, Crawdaddy. During the 1980s, the height of the nuclear freeze campaign, he was the editor of Nuclear Times, kind of a trade journal for that movement. He also co-wrote with Robert Jay Lifton a book about (and against) capital punishment. More recently, and of relevance to the bias study, Mitchell has published two works of political history that examine the media's role. Campaign of the Century (1992) is about Upton Sinclair's 1934 race for governor of California (as a socialist) and "the birth of media politics." Mitchell saw that race as a laboratory for the kind of campaign where driving up an opponent's negatives is the strategy. Six years ago he published a book (Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs Helen Gahagan Douglas — Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950 [1998]) on Richard Nixon's 1950 Senate race against Helen Gahagan Douglas, "widely remembered as one of the dirtiest ever," as his publisher, Random House, put it."

An impressive record, and Greg Mitchell's "Pressing Issues" column in Editor & Publisher is enormously valuable. So we don't mean to suggest that Mitchell is thinking one thing and writing another — if he doesn't cite Chomsky, no doubt it's because he doesn't believe in his model.

But that's precisely the point, isn't it?

If he did believe in it, would he be able to be editor of Editor & Publisher?

We don't think so.

P.S. Oh, and by the way — we have no evidence, be we also have no doubt that it was Karl Rove who about a year ago dreamed up that moving moment of the mother of a dead soldier embracing an Iraqi woman voter at the State of the Union speech. It's just the kind of thing to emerge from the man his biographer called "Bush's Brain."



Pressing Issues


By Greg Mitchell

** Everyone is delighted that so many Iraqis went to the polls on Sunday, but do the two turnout numbers routinely cited by the press — 8 million and 57% — have any basis in reality? And was the outpouring of voters in Sunni areas really "surprisingly strong"? **

Editor & Publisher
February 2, 2005


Everyone, of course, is thrilled that so many Iraqis turned out to vote, in the face of threats and intimidation, on Sunday. But in hailing, and at times gushing, over the turnout, has the American media (as it did two years ago in the hyping of Saddam's WMDs) forgotten core journalistic principles in regard to fact-checking and weighing partisan assertions?

It appears so. For days, the press repeated, as gospel, assertions offered by an election official that 8 million Iraqis went to the polls on Sunday, an impressive 57% turnout rate. I questioned those figures as early as last Sunday, and offered the detailed analysis below on Wednesday. Finally, on Thursday night, John F. Burns and Dexter Filkins of the New York Times reported that Iraqi election officials have quietly "backtracked, saying that the 8 million estimate had been reached hastily on the basis of telephone reports from polling stations across the country and that the figure could change."

Then, in Friday's paper, Burns and Filkins noted that one election commision official was "evasive about the turnout, implying it might end up significantly lower than the initial estimate." They quoted this official, Safwat Radhid, exclaiming: "Only God Almighty knows the final turnout now." And they revealed that the announcement of a turnout number, expected to be released this weekend, has been put off for a week.

I'll be delighted if that figure, when it is officially announced, exceeds the dubious numbers already enshrined by much of the media. But don't be surprised if it falls a bit short. The point is: Nobody knows, and reporters and pundits should have never acted like they did know when they stated, flatly, that 8 million Iraqis voted and that this represents a turnout rate of about 57%.

Carl Bialik, who writes the Numbers Guy column for Wall Street Journal Online, calls this "a great question . . . how the journalists can know these numbers — when so many of them aren't able to venture out all over that country." Speaking to E&P on Wednesday, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post — one of the few mainstream journalists to raise questions about the turnout percentage [& you can add Matt Spetalnick to that list, though Reuters editors buried his caveat deep inside his story —F.M.] — referred to the "fuzzy math" at the heart of it.

Those with long memories may recall the downward-adjusted turnout numbers that followed violence-plagued elections in South Vietnam in 1967 and in El Salvador in 1984.

And one thing we now know for sure: the early media blather about a "strong" Sunni turnout has proven false. Adding a dose of reality, the Associated Press on Wednesday cited a Western diplomat who declared that turnout appeared to have been "quite low" in Iraq's vast Anbar province. Meanwhile, Carlos Valenzuela, the chief United Nations elections expert in Iraq, cautioned that forecasts for the Sunni areas were so low to begin with that even a higher-than-expected turnout would remain low.

In a rare reference to an actual vote tabulation, the New York Times on Thursday reports that in the "diverse" city of Mosul, with 60% of the count completed, the overall turnout seems slightly above 10%, or "somewhat more than 50,000 of Mosul's 500,000 estimated eligible voters."

This, of course, is no minor matter: Iraq's leading Sunni Muslim clerics said Wednesday that the country's election lacked legitimacy because large numbers of Sunnis did not participate in the balloting. Sure, many of them are simply sore losers (they lost an entire country) but that doesn't make their reaction any less troublesome for Iraq's future, especially with the cleric-backed Shiite alliance apparently headed for a landslide win.

Dexter Filkins of the New York Times warned Thursday that the widespread Sunni boycott "could even lead to the failure of the constitution; under the rules drafted last year to guide the establishment of a new Iraqi state, a two-thirds 'no' vote in three provinces would send the constitution down to defeat. The Sunnis are a majority in three provinces."

As for the overall Iraqi turnout: the more the better, but why is the press so confident in the estimates from an Iraqi commission with a clear stake in a high number?

For three days now, the press has routinely referred to the figure of 8 million Iraqi voters, following the lead of Farid Ayar, the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq. In the original press citations, what Ayar actually said (hedging his bets) was "as many as 8 million," which most in the media quickly translated as "about 8 million," and then, inevitably, "8 million."

Curiously, the day before the election, according to press reports, Ayar had predicted that 7 to 8 million would turn out, giving him some incentive to later spot the numbers in that neighborhood.

Also, one dares to ask: If the commission expected close to 8 million, and that's what happened — and there was less violence on election day than anticipated — why was the turnout greeted as such a surprise? Especially since U.S. and Iraqi leaders have spent months knocking the press for failing to report that the vast majority of regions in this country are safe and friendly.

The percentage of turnout supplied by Ayar came to 57% (happily rounded off by the press to 60%). This was based on what was described as 14 million potential voters divided by those 8 million who braved the potential bullets and bombs to go to the polls.

On Sunday, while hailing the millions going to the polls, I also raised questions about the 14 million eligible figure: was that registered voters, or all adults over 18, or what? Few on TV or in print seem to be quite sure, to this day.

It's a big difference. Since Sunday, countless TV talking heads, such as Chris Matthews, and print pundits have compared the Iraq turnout favorably to U.S. national elections, not seeming to understand that 80%-90% of our registered voters usually turn out. The problem in our country is that so few people bother to register, bringing our overall turnout numbers way down.

Howard Kurtz at least looked into the Iraqi numbers. In a Tuesday column, he observed that "the 14 million figure is the number of registered Iraqis, while turnout is usually calculated using the number of eligible voters. The number of adults in Iraq is probably closer to 18 million," which would lower the turnout figure to 45% (if, indeed, the 8 million number holds up).

To put it clearly: If say, for example, 50,000 residents of a city registered and 25,000 voted, that would seem like a very respectable 50% turnout, by one standard. But if the adult population of the city was 150,000, then the actual turnout of 16% would look quite different.

"Election officials concede they did not have a reliable baseline on which to calculate turnout," Kurtz concluded.

He also quoted Democratic strategist Robert Weiner as saying: "It's an amazing media error, a huge blunder. I'm sure the Bush administration is thrilled by this spin."

Bloggers quickly questioned Kurtz's upgrade to 18 million, noting that the population of the country, according to many sources, is 25 million or so, and the population is heavily teenaged and younger. But other current estimates run as high as 27.1 million.

The critics also hit Kurtz for not providing a source for his 18 million figure. But Kurtz told E&P on Wednseday, "I talked to a couple of experts, one of whom was Ken Pollack, from Brookings, and also ran it by two of my reporters in Baghdad. But it is definitely an approximation, just trying to give a sense that — the one thing everyone I consulted seems to agree on — is that the 14 million, the baseline, is a very fuzzy figure because there was no registration."

He said he thought it was Pollack, "who studies this for a living," who pegged the adult population of Iraq at 17 or 18 million. "Maybe he leaned more toward 18 million," Kurtz added. "I don't know if this is a definitive figure but I was just trying to explain the difference between whatever that figure is and the 14 million that was so widely used by all the media as if it were everyone eligible — which means, to me, everyone over 18. When in fact it was this concocted number about passive registration based on who got rations. The point is, it's all fuzzy math, and I was just trying to illustrate that."

He added: "This was my stab at just trying to tell readers the 60% figure that had been so widely touted was hardly definitive, and it may be lower."

All credit to the brave Iraqis who did vote, and in many places they did turn out in droves. But it occurred to me, watching the moving TV images on Sunday of people standing in line outside polling places in Sunni hot spots, that maybe, as so often, the camera lied. In many embattled Sunni cities, we'd been told, many if not most polling places never opened. Wouldn't this likely cause a crush, by even a few hundred voters, at the relatively few places that did open?

Not that anyone, that I know of, was asking.