The big media's "moral values" myth

Published December 20, 2004 9:17PM (EST)

Like that tangled mess of Christmas lights still framing the neighbors' house come late January, the moment is long past due to pull the plug on America's overplayed and largely phony red-state, blue-state melodrama. There were plenty of tall tales told by the big media in 2004, from the Swift Boat boys to CBS-gate, but the idea that "moral values" -- whatever the hell that really means -- was the overwhelming reason that voters reelected President Bush, may take the grand prize. (Not least because the right-wing wasted no time in wrapping its long-time agenda in the blaring colors of the "values" hysteria.)

There's a good chance you haven't heard about it, but a recent nationwide poll of voters published by Gallup last week -- and all but ignored by the big media -- showed that "values" actually came in a distant fourth:

"Asked what they consider 'the most important problem facing this country today' the issue of values was tied for fourth place with unemployment/jobs, with only one in ten of the Gallup sample choosing it. Far ahead, with 23%, was the war in Iraq, followed by terrorism and the economy in general, both at 12%, only then followed by unemployment and values. The modest vote for values is all the more surprising because it was broadly defined to include a wide range of concerns including 'ethics,' 'moral,' 'religious/family decline,' 'dishonesty,' and 'lack of integrity.' This 10% total could also be compared to the 29% who named some aspect of the economy as the top issue, along with the 35% who mentioned Iraq or terrorism."

To its credit, Gallup has righted a wrong; major polling firms shared some responsibility for thrusting the red-blue hullabaloo center stage after the election. As recently as Dec. 7, Gallup itself declared that "moral values were important in the 2004 exit polls," even while conceding that the terminology was vague and might be counterproductive to understanding how the election played out.

But it's America's lazy big-time journalists who deserve the most blame. Like a faithful flock napping in the pews, most of them nodded right along with the simplistic narrative sketched from the exit polls and made it the gospel. (Did anybody bother to question the utility of those exit polls after that swerving round of data on Election Day afternoon gave John Kerry a big lead?) Back on Nov. 10, Media Matters for America documented some of the inept post-election preaching.

"Dan Rather (CBS anchor): 'Moral values -- we'll give you a look at the surprise issue that trumped the war, terror, and the economy as the decisive issue in the election.' ['CBS Evening News,' 11/3/04]

"Anderson Cooper (CNN anchor): 'Well, for months, the presidential campaigns and pundits have debated whether the driving issues of this election would be Iraq or the economy. Turns out it was neither. Moral values ruled this election, with 22 percent of voters citing moral issues as their No. 1 concern.' [CNN, 'Anderson Cooper 360,' 11/3/04]

"Paula Zahn (CNN anchor): 'Tonight, it is the decisive issue, the one pollsters didn't see coming -- millions of people voting their moral values. ... The exit polls are quite stunning, at least to some folks looking at these numbers for the first time, when it appears that moral issues trumped just about every other issue on the map here." [CNN, 'Paula Zahn Now,' 11/3/04]"

For more on the issues that were really at the heart of election '04, one good starting place is Peter Beinart's much talked about recent essay in the New Republic. (The TNR link is currently unavailable.)

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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