New York Times Blames Data 'Overload,' 'Compassion Fatigue,' and Basketball for Obama's Low Libya Ratings

March 28th, 2011 1:18 PM

 Sunday’s New York Times's National section led off with Kirk Johnson's “Inundated With News, Many Find It Difficult To Keep Up on Libya,” which dug up some novel excuses for the public’s resistance to Obama’s war in Libya (a Gallup poll shows only 47% approve of the bombing strikes): Information “overload,” “compassion fatigue,” and the NCAA basketball tournament.

Denver Bureau Chief Johnson, whose reporting has a pro-Democratic slant, blamed the findings in part on “compassion fatigue.” That itself is a leading description -- would the Times have ever suggested Bush’s involvement in Iraq was borne out of “compassion” for innocent Iraqis?

In the case of a war waged by Obama, the Times ignores other reasons why the public could be skeptical: Fears of mission creep, questions about exit strategies, and concerns about the wisdom of choosing sides in a civil war. Instead, Johnson faults information overload. The inference? The public would be showing more support Obama’s war if they weren’t so distracted by the Japan earthquake and the NCAA basketball tournament.

Many Americans find themselves scratching their heads about America’s military intervention in Libya, and part of the reason, they say, can be summed up in one word: overload.

People interviewed across four states said that at a time when the world seems to stagger from one breathtaking news event to another -- rolling turmoil across the Middle East, economic troubles at home, disaster upon disaster in Japan -- the airstrikes on military targets in Libya can feel like one crisis too many.

“Other headlines, other news,” said Bob Britt, 70, a retired computer support manager, summing up the distractions as he watched a bank of television screens in the lobby of a Denver office building during his lunch break from jury duty.

Or maybe it is compassion fatigue.


In a Gallup poll released on Monday, 47 percent of respondents said they approved of bombing strikes against the military government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the leader of Libya.

Support for military action usually surges in the early days of a conflict, but this was the weakest level of enthusiasm for any of the 10 United States military actions on which the Gallup Organization has sought public opinion in nearly three decades. It was also the highest proportion of people with no opinion, at 16 percent.

A survey by the Pew Research Center -- conducted partly before and partly after the bombing raids on Libya began on March 19 -- found that only 5 percent of respondents were following the events “very closely.” Fifty-seven percent said they were closely following the news about Japan.

The Times leaned against Gallup’s findings with three captioned photos of Times interviewees. Two of the three supported the war, and the other one lamented his inability to follow the news:

“I’m happy that the U.S. is supporting, is backing everything up. I really am. Someone has to step in, someone has to take a stand. I’m glad that’s us. And we’re not just sitting back, passive.” -- Roxanne Hancock, 50.

“One day it’s this story, and then, oh, more information comes out -- if there was one or two things going on, it would probably be easier to get caught up.” -- Kevin Kilgore, 34.

“I feel like the U.S. is kind of trying to -- at least the Obama administration is trying to -- stop or prevent another Afghanistan situation.” -- Zena Fares, 22.

More excuses:

Some people said they had opinions and conclusions about Libya, but they worried that they were not getting enough information from news organizations to make those judgments feel sound. Some painted dark conspiracies about information being withheld; others cheerfully admitted that they were paying more attention to the college basketball tournament than to the no-fly zone over Libya.

Couldn’t the basketball accusation be leveled against Obama himself, at least in terms of how much time he’s spent on national television explaining his position? Obama has spent ten minutes on ESPN discussing his NCAA basketball pool, compared to zero minutes on national television discussing the bombing of Libya (he is scheduled to address the nation on the matter tonight).