Public's Ignorance About the 'Submerged State'

Few encounters are more difficult for reporters than trying to interview people living, at least in part, in some alternate universe. I’ve dealt with otherwise seemingly reasonable people who hold beliefs or embrace misinformation with certainty and pass

Apr 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Few encounters are more difficult for reporters than trying to interview people living, at least in part, in some alternate universe.

I’ve dealt with otherwise seemingly reasonable people who hold beliefs or embrace misinformation with certainty and passion that are impervious to skeptical questions.

It’s especially troubling when covering controversies involving public policy. For instance, what do we ask the woman who wrote to President Obama, saying, “I don't want government-run health-care. I don't want socialized medicine. And don't touch my Medicare."

We can’t tell who funds Medicare or who pays her physicians in her universe but it’s not Washington. Similarly, she’s entitled to object to socialized medicine but Medicare isn’t socialized medicine. That’s the Veterans Adminstration, where physicians are government employees; Medicare is single payer but health-care providers are not government employees.

Good luck probing that distinction or confusion.

A reporter would be lucky to escape with only a tongue-lashing about being “elitist” or “liberal” or whatever trope the GOP and its Fox News/Tea Party masters are pushing with the misinformation.

I’m not talking about religious beliefs. Those cannot be proven or disproven. That’s why it’s called “faith.”

Rather, I think of the tax protesting father and two sons who insisted someone else was named in prosecution documents because their names were typed in capital letters. Writing about the trial and conviction was a nightmare, not least because all three defended themselves while denying court authority because, among other things, the “wrong” U.S. flag was standing behind the judge.

Then there are Ohioans who fear the death of the “American Way of Life” at the hands of the U.S. Army or Mongolian troops arriving on black helicopters in blue U.N. helmets. It didn’t take long before they fantasized about winning that apocalyptic confrontation with the civilian rifles, handguns and shotguns whose possession the Second Amendment guarantees.

Not all wingnuts are on the Right. I know Lefties who believe FEMA has built concentration camps for hyphenated Americans (Iranian, Arab, etc.); Bush-Obama pursuit of trivial reasons to deport U.S. residents don’t help.

These folks have to be taken seriously. They’re pre-Tea Party and often even more suspicious of and hostile to federal authority. Their understanding of the U.S. Constitution is as selective and demented as many Fox commentators.

But in a less anxious reality, more Americans don’t understand or won’t believe that popular programs are tax-supported and run by federal employees or contractors.

This confusion is a relatively modern phenomenon. Americans increasingly associated federal programs with personal and communal progress: Social Security, the G.I. Bill, V.A. mortgages, home mortgage tax deductions, WIC, Pell Grants, and God help us, payment for care that physicians once provided at their cost. That’s Medicare.

More recently, relentless rightwing onslaughts have disoriented many of our neighbors with the awful news that the programs they enjoy mean they’re on the federal tit.

Just how pervasive this ignorance can be is demonstrated in the journal, Perspectives on Politics, by Cornell University professor Suzanne Mettler. She studied this disconnect between 19 federal programs and beneficiaries.

Her results are a cautionary tale for reporters covering public responses to Obama attempts to reform health-care, public education, taxation, and old-age benefits.

The key is what she calls the “submerged state.” She describes it as “a conglomeration of existing federal policies that incentivize and subsidize activities engaged in by private actors and individuals.”

Moreover, “the submerged state has fostered the profitability of particular industries and induced them to increase their political capacity, which they have exercised in efforts to maintain the status quo.”

In short, they spend big bucks protecting their profits and, while they donate to both major parties, the Republicans carry the industries’ water. Think about the proposed privatization of Social Security and Medicare and ways it would enrich the insurance industry.

Then she gets to the point that caught my attention when I first read about her research in The Nation.

“(T)the submerged state simultaneously eludes most ordinary citizens: They have little awareness of its policies or their upwardly redistributive effects, and few are cognizant of what is at stake in reform efforts.”

Mettler’s conclusions drew on her 2008 Social and Governmental Issues and Participation Study. It examined the percentage of program bene%uFB01ciaries who responded that “No, have not used a government social program.” (Her submerged state policies — the first six — are shown in italics.)

** 529 or Coverdell (saving for college) 64.3

** Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0

** Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6

** Student Loans 53.3

** Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7

** Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1

** Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1

** Pell Grants 43.1

** Unemployment Insurance 43.0

** Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7

** G.I. Bill 40.3

** Medicare 39.8

** Head Start 37.2

** Social Security Disability 28.7

** SSI—Supplemental Security Income 28.2

** Medicaid 27.8

** Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4

** Government Subsidized Housing 27.4

** Food Stamps 25.4

That means anywhere from 25 percent to 60 percent of adult Americans whom a reporter encounters won’t know that the program they use is a federal program. It’s stunning evidence of civic ignorance that the affected industries have no interest in mitigating.

Similarly, it should be no surprise that there also was a correlation between ignorance of using a “submerged” program and a sense that the tax system was unfair.

How do you elicit an informed interview from anyone in that crowd? How do you ask readers, viewers and listeners about the need for — or opposition to — reform when they’re wallowing in ignorance or denial?

Do you shout, “Hey, man! You’re paying for this shit? Don’t you know? Don’t you care?”


• In her study cited above, Suzanne Mettler also found that many Americans “do not comprehend what is at stake in policy battles surrounding them. This is not surprising, given that political elites communicate about such policies rarely, and when they do, it is typically in muted, oblique, and contradictory ways.”

That could be Mettler’s way of saying the mainstream news media’s traditional approach to covering public policy and legislative activity fails to provide readers, viewers and listeners with enough information to make informed decisions. At least for her respondents, journalists’ fascination with the horse race — who’s winning and who’s losing, nevermind the substance of the policies and programs — doesn’t suffice.

Mettler, however, notes, “The ‘submerged state’ need not necessarily remain hidden from ordinary Americans and visible only to entrenched powerful interests. When respondents were provided with basic facts about how such policies function and then asked their views, the ranks of the uninformed fell to less than one in five: Simple, clear, policy-relevant information facilitated opinion expression among citizens, particularly those with at least moderate levels of political knowledge.

“After respondents were provided with basic information about the distributive effect of the home mortgage interest deduction — the fact that it benefits mostly affluent people — opposition grew sharply, particularly among those with low to moderate incomes and among liberals and Democrats. By contrast, after being informed that the Earned Income Tax Credit benefitted mostly those in low-moderate income groups, support grew among respondents generally, regardless of income.”

• It’s another of those “OMG!” moments for the news media. The author of the damning Goldstone Report — which accused Israel and its military of deliberately targeting civilians in the 2008-09 invasion of Gaza — has withdrawn that accusation. Richard Goldstone, a South African Jew and retired Constitutional Court justice, led the fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council. Now, he says, new information debunks the earlier conclusion. His recantation came in an article in The Washington Post:

“If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document . . . The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”

Beyond predictable reactions in Jerusalem and Gaza, what do the news media do? It was a huge story when Goldstone presented his report and conclusions to the UN. Israel and Hamas didn't cooperate with his commission’s probe when the fighting ended. Israel, however, since has done extensive investigations of its soldiers’ actions in Gaza.

Goldstone writes, “Although the Israeli evidence that has emerged since publication of our report doesn’t negate the tragic loss of civilian life, I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes.”

Goldstone continues, “We made our recommendations based on the record before us, which unfortunately did not include any evidence provided by the Israeli government. Indeed, our main recommendation was for each party to investigate, transparently and in good faith, the incidents referred to in our report. McGowan Davis has found that Israel has done this to a significant degree; Hamas has done nothing . . . Regrettably, there has been no effort by Hamas in Gaza to investigate the allegations of its war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.”

Based on The Post’s April 2 website, The New York Times ran its story April 3 on page A10 in the home final edition; it wasn’t in The Times that arrived at our house. It appeared to be a classic case of The PostTimes playing rival for fools, an old trick every editor knows: Put a killer story out so late that all the competition can do is report that you have it and what it says.

Qatar-based AlJazeera English did not report Goldstone’s revised opinion on its website in days immediately after it was published. Dubai-based AlArabiya carried the story the same day as The Times on its website under the headlines “Goldstone says regrets his conclusions in report” and “Israel wants Gaza war crimes report retracted.”

NPR and CNN posted it the next day on their websites. Two days after The Post put Goldstone’s column online and The Times wrote about it, The Enquirer website had not carried the story from AP or The Times. A week later, The Enquirer carried an Opinion Page column on Goldstone’s change of mind.

• Anchor Bret Baier is the newest Fox News star and NPR’s media critic, David Folkenflik, debunks Fox’s claim that Baier’s nightly Special Report is fair and balanced. Folkenflik “reviewed six months' worth of Baier's panels, and the same mix typically prevailed: Two clear-cut conservatives and one other analyst. That other person was sometimes a Democrat or liberal — say, former Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers. But usually it was a journalist from a non-ideological news outlet, such as The Hill, Politico, The Washington Post or NPR . . . As I told Baier, that would seem both to underrepresent the Left and also to cast reporters as though they're surrogate liberals.”

The Washington Post caught NBC network news ignoring a March 28 New York Times story about General Electric Co. paying virtually no federal taxes.

GE — which reported $5.1 billion U.S. profits in 2010 — owns NBC. NBC isn’t unique. The Enquirer long has been deferential to GE because of the economic clout of its aircraft engine plant in Evendale. So I checked The Enquirer website for the tax story; The Enquirer frequently uses Times stories, usually a day later.

I looked at all of the March 28-30 stories and found nothing about GE’s tax avoidance. No surprise. It took the Business Courier to tell me GE’s new fighter engine would be built elsewhere if the project survived bipartisan White House efforts to kill it as redundant and unnecessary to national security. Enquirer stories have concentrated on efforts to retain well-paid jobs dependent on developing the unwanted engine.

The Nation blasted nuclear power in an April 4 editorial, “Hiroshima to Fukushima,” and on the next page was an ad for the “Talking Atomic Watch.” I have no problem with any publication accepting ads with which it doesn’t agree, but placement? When I was motoring writer for the Geneva Weekly Tribune, I panned Chrysler’s top offering at the Swiss auto show. Their PR man called to concede my trashing was justified, but he lamented our running it above the ad for the car.

• It was smart and brave to begin the WVXU series on Cincinnati since the 2001 killing of Timothy Thomas with Police Officer Keith Fangman. He led the Fraternal Order of Police during crucial negotiations that followed the shooting and litigation accusing officers of racial profiling of black drivers.

• There is enough misinformation and deception about relations between Cincinnati police officers and the black community without Streetvibes adding to it in the most inflammatory way. Purporting to look back at the killing of Timothy Thomas by officer Stephen Roach, Streetvibes says the fleeing Thomas was shot in the back. Wrong.

Writer and former Judge Leslie Isaiah Gaines, knew or should have known better. As far as I can learn, there is no argument: Thomas and Roach encountered each oter face to face in a dark alley, Roach says he thought Thomas was reaching for a gun, and Roach shot him. (Editor's note: Roach later told police investigators he was running with his finger on the gun's trigger — contrary to department policy — and the weapon fired when he was surprised by Thomas.)

The same issue of Streetvibes doesn’t know how to spell the name of one of Cincinnati’s foremost TV journalists, WLWT’s Courtis Fuller. Maybe the editor should spend more time checking contributors’ copy than using her column to talk about her heels and hair. And am I the only reader who bristles at the logo of stylish very high heels in a street paper dedicated to the homeless?