How Much Trust for the Military?
In past years, come late January or early February, polling organizations would release the results of surveys asking, among other questions, which institutions and who among prominent personalities the public esteemed. This year, at the appointed time, much of the news coverage centered on the changes on Capitol Hill with the Democrats in control of both Houses for the first time in 12 years and the first time in the presidency of George W. Bush.
In the most fundamental sense, of course, the “poll” last November that effected this change of control was the one that counted – at least that is the theory. But with the president’s January 10, 2007 speech announcing a troop increase of 21,500 (eventually rising to nearly 30,000), the White House served notice on the public and the Congress that there would be no strategy shift, only a tactical one.
Meanwhile, the various polling organizations did their annual surveys, with the Pew Research Center completing the most recent one on April 5. But as Fate would have it, that week was Easter/Passover, and by April 5th it seemed many people had emulated college students, Congress, and the first family and left for a long vacation.
Even so, the results were startling enough to warrant media attention, especially since the Pew survey found that 27% of those questioned said they had “no confidence” in press reporting about the war. That is just 11% fewer than the number expressing confidence in the media’s portrayal of the fighting in Iraq.
Now it is possible that some of those surveyed are conscious of the restrictions faced by western reporters simply because all foreigners are targets and therefore cannot travel to many locations for first-hand reporting. But this does not explain the startling finding by the Pew researchers that 21% of the U.S. public no longer has confidence in the truthfulness of the military’s reports about what is happening. With a standard margin of error of plus/minus 3%, that puts public distrust of military reports within spitting distance of the level of mistrust of the press. The only bright spot is that 46% of respondents said they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the military’s accounts 12 points higher than for the media.
But 46%? In March 2003, both military and press reporting enjoyed overwhelming public confidence – 85% for the military and 81% for the media. There is the suggestion of a certain fickleness in these percentages that mirrors how well the war was going – that is, the content of the message had an influence on the public perception of the truthfulness of the report. In the first two or three months, as many as 90% of the public judged the war was going “fairly” or “very well” while today that percentage has dropped to 40% -- and has been lower than that.