When the press performs well

By Rhonda Dredge

Way above the CBD in a lovely little apartment hidden within a hotel on Highlander Lane, two thinkers work on articles for publication in the academic press.

Leonie Huddy and Stanley Feldman are political psychologists and they like the quiet of a high-rise location. 

But a haven in Melbourne’s CBD does not protect them from the fact that Trump is threatening war in Iran. 

One of their collaborative ventures was a book on the lead-up to the Iraq war which showed how President Bush misled the public.

“The concept of information flow is central to whether the public is led by elite opinion,” they said in Going to War in Iraq.

They claim that newspapers played a major role in uncovering misinformation about Bush’s claims whereas TV channels in the United States tended to be governed by elite information flow.

Leonie grew up in Edithvale, studied psychology then moved to the US in the 1970s where she did a PhD on political opinion polling.  

She met her partner Stanley, they married and they’ve worked together at Stony Brook University on Long Island ever since. 

They are now commuting between their various teaching posts and Melbourne’s CBD.

Their analysis showed that democrats and independents who read investigative reports in newspapers tended to oppose the war whereas the response by the actual Democratic Party was weak.

Political psychologists have to be sure before they are willing to go on the record. They first had to negate the null hypothesis that people who opposed the war tended to be newspaper readers anyway and weren’t actually influenced by what they read.

Analysis of the data showed that a non-elite Knight Ridder newspaper group was prominent and critical in its regional coverage of President Bush’s false information about weapons of mass destruction.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury News and the Detroit Free Press were more critical than the elite New York Times. 

This analysis has given the couple an important anti-war message. 

When asked by a psychologist about whether citizens like going to war, the Nazi commander Herman Goebbels said: “Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?”

When the psychologist suggested that in a democracy people have some say, Goebbels replied: “Oh, that is well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.”

The book concludes that the public is capable of engaging with complex policy issues when the press performs well.

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