If you took physics in high school or college, you probably learned about the “observer effect,” often illustrated with the thought experiment of Schrödinger's Cat, in which something terrible either does or does not happen to little Tabby as she waits in her box with a canister of poison gas (science is ruthless, you know). To the outside world, Tabby exists in a state neither dead nor alive until the box is opened and she is observed, at which point, she takes on one state or the other, depending on whether it's her lucky day. The principle Schrödinger was illustrating is that -- in quantum mechanics, at least -- the act of observation itself inevitably affects the thing being observed.
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If you took physics in high school or college, you probably learned about the "observer effect," often illustrated with the thought experiment of Schrödinger's Cat, in which something terrible either does or does not happen to little Tabby as she waits in her box with a canister of poison gas (science is ruthless, you know). To the outside world, Tabby exists in a state neither dead nor alive until the box is opened and she is observed, at which point, she takes on one state or the other, depending on whether it's her lucky day. The principle Schrödinger was illustrating is that -- in quantum mechanics, at least -- the act of observation itself inevitably affects the thing being observed.
We were reminded of the potential effect of Schrödinger's principle this week. The nature of journalism is such that by casting their gaze upon an event, the news media almost inevitably influence how that event proceeds. By telling us what public opinion is, they influence how we think about our own beliefs and the place they hold among our fellow citizens.
And by telling us what is going to happen, they often make the very course of events they are predicting more likely. While reporters may not be comfortable with the idea, the truth is that self-fulfilling prophecies occur constantly in the news media. For instance, when reporters decide one candidate is the “front-runner,” he gets the lion's share of attention, which makes his victory seem likely, which better enables fundraising, which allows him to hire more staff and air more ads, and so on until that victory actually comes about. The candidate reporters choose to ignore as having little chance of winning will -- precisely because the press ignores him -- have little chance of winning.
The events of last week, in which British authorities foiled what they said was a plot to blow up airplanes with liquid explosives, seemed again ripe for the observer effect to come into play. The media immediately began to lay the groundwork by which their own patterns of interpretation would serve to create yet another self-fulfilling prophecy. Within hours of the arrests, the media proceeded with Pavlovian predictability to raise the question of whether the thwarting of the alleged plot would provide a boost for President Bush in the polls. Some went so far as to simply assert that it would.
Media Matters for America wrote:
Since authorities in Britain recently arrested several suspects accused of plotting to attack U.S.-bound flights using liquid explosives, numerous media outlets have posed the question of whether news of the thwarted terror plot will benefit President Bush -- and in some cases, simply made the assertion that it does.
In doing so, they repeated at least two familiar patterns: filtering virtually all major events through their “good for Bush?” lens and parroting the Republicans' dominant message -- a theme that may have secured Bush's re-election -- that the president is keeping you safe. Karl Rove himself could not have dictated a better response -- or rather, this is precisely the response that he presented when, earlier this year, he laid out the GOP's plan for holding onto Congress in November. The problems with the media's assumption that it's their role to ask this question seem beyond obvious, but since we have never shied away from stating the obvious, and since the media, by contrast, too often run from it, here they are:
It's simple. When the media assert that a particular event -- in this case, the U.K. arrests -- will drive up Bush's poll numbers on the question of national security, they do several things: They suggest to the public that Bush played a significant role in thwarting the terror plot; they tell the public that his purported role is another example of his strength on terror; and they contribute invaluably to Rove's plan to make this election year about the war on terror rather than about any number of other issues -- including the Iraq war -- that Rove has decided, probably correctly, poll even worse for Republicans. If, in fact, Bush's poll numbers were to go up, in no small part because Americans are being told that Bush is strong on terror, that he played a vital role in averting the most heinous terror attack since 9-11, and that he is protecting them, the media would almost certainly tell themselves that they were right. The next time a national security-related event occurred, the media could have looked to this experience and said that “terror helps Bush.” And, assuming this pattern held, they would be right again.
Arianna Huffington explained the cycle in an August 13 post to the Huffington Post weblog, lighting into an August 11 New York Times article by reporter Adam Nagourney with the headline "Arrests Bolster G.O.P. Bid To Claim Security as Issue." Huffington wrote:
Really? Do they? How do we know they do?
When you read the story you find out that the reason we know they do is because, yes, the G.O.P. told us so. Nagourney writes: “The developments played neatly into the White House-led effort, after Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, lost on Tuesday to an antiwar primary challenger, to remind voters of the threats facing the nation and to cast Democrats as timid on national defense.”
No, it's not “the developments” that played neatly into “the White House-led effort,” it's Adam Nagourney who did.
The White House fabricated a connection and a neat fit between the “developments” and the “Democrats.” But isn't it up to the mainstream media to expose fraudulent connections instead of endorsing them as fact?
The truth, which, sadly, you won't find in the New York Times story, is that in no way do the arrests in Britain bolster the GOP's claims to be the party to best defend America. And the only way they will is if the media swallow Ken Mehlman's talking points and turn them into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We said it was obvious -- the assertion that a national security-related event will raise Bush's poll numbers can help bring about a boost in Bush's poll numbers. Obvious, yes, but apparently not to some of our most prominent journalists and pundits.
If there's a flaw in our analogy to the “observer effect,” it is that it presumes that observation -- or, in this case, reporting -- is actually occurring. But in order to assert, or even suggest, that the U.K. arrests would give Bush a boost, the media necessarily eschewed reporting, because reporting -- learning facts, getting different points of view, analyzing the findings -- would have obliterated their premise. In suggesting or asserting that the U.K. arrests are helping or will help Bush, the media are not reporting; they are repeating. That Bush is strong on terror. That Bush played an important role in thwarting the attacks. That Bush's policies have made us safer. That, to paraphrase Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the Republicans make our country safer.
We are not saying that any of those statements is false. We are merely saying that in simply asserting that the public will view Bush more favorably as a result of the U.K. arrests, the media must withhold from viewers and readers -- and presumably themselves -- contrary evidence and contrary viewpoints.
They must not remind their audience that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has acknowledged that “we do not have evidence ... that the plotting [for the attack] was done in the United States” and that “we did not see any U.S. internal activity in this plot.” In other words, the impact of U.S. domestic investigative activities on thwarting the U.K. plot was not significant. That doesn't mean that the United States did not play a role; but given how little information has been actually reported about the United States' role in the matter, it seems that it should be relevant in the media's conclusions about how the thwarted attack should affect public opinion of the president.
In suggesting that the public will view Bush more favorably, the media must also ignore or disparage a report by NBC that the Bush administration rushed the Brits into making the arrests before they were ready. For their audience to be adequately frightened by the imminence of the threat and appropriately grateful that it was thwarted, the media must also ignore the same NBC report that none of the suspected terrorists had bought plane tickets, and that several lacked passports.
To suggest that the thwarted plot should remind people of Bush's strength on terror, the media must ignore the catastrophe that is Iraq. They must internalize and echo the Republicans' argument that the U.K. arrests and the war in Iraq are all part of the same heroic effort. They must ignore the Democratic argument that the Iraq war has diverted badly needed resources from the real war on terror.
To suggest that Bush has made us safer, they must ignore the Democrats' argument that we are less safe because the GOP has failed to implement the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission. To suggest that Bush has made us safer, they must ignore the ample evidence that both the Bush administration and congressional Republicans have failed to sufficiently protect against terrorist attacks, despite repeated warnings from terrorism experts, Democrats, and the 9-11 Commission.
If professional pride isn't enough to dissuade the media from repeating Republican spin on an issue as serious and consequential as national security, perhaps this will be: The media's predictions are wrong. Polling conducted after the U.K. arrests doesn't bear out the claims of a Bush bounce. As Media Matters wrote:
An August 12 Newsweek poll found that while approval of Bush's handling of terrorism and homeland security went up from 44 percent in May to 55 percent, Bush's overall job-approval rating went up only 3 points -- from 35 percent in May to 38 percent, within the poll's margin of error. An August 14 CBS poll found that approval of Bush's handling of terrorism and Bush's overall approval rating remained unchanged from July. An August 15 Gallup poll found that Bush's approval dropped three points from July -- 40 percent to 37 percent, within the margin of error -- and did not ask about his handling of terrorism. The August 16 Zogby poll put Bush's approval rating at 34 percent -- a 2-point drop from the previous poll, and within the margin of error. The August 17 Pew poll put Bush's handling of “terrorist threats” at 50 percent -- up 3 points from June, within the 4-point margin of error. -- while his general approval rating rose 1 point over July's figure to 37 percent.
Pollsters John Zogby and Andrew Kohut had an explanation for the numbers, which should come as no surprise, except maybe to the media who predicted otherwise: As Media Matters pointed out, they both argued that the U.K. terror arrests had a negligible impact on public opinion because the Iraq war weighs far more heavily on the public consciousness. It remains to be seen whether the media will consider the public's concern with the disastrous situation in Iraq in making predictions in the future, or whether they will disregard the ample evidence of that preoccupation, as they continue to disregard much of significance on the question of our national security.
All of which is to say that every prophecy need not be self-fulfilling, and though it may not occur in physics, in politics sometimes the thing being observed -- the public, in this case -- is smart enough not to go along with what it is being told it will do.