- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

We are not a nation of news junkies: The American public’s grasp of current affairs has not changed in almost 20 years, despite the heavy influence of cable news and the Internet, according to a study released yesterday by the Pew Research Center.

“Some might say, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.’ We’ve been tracking public knowledge over time and have found that even though the number of news sources have increased dramatically, the amount of time people spend with news hasn’t changed that much,” said center director Andrew Kohut.

“The coaxial and digital revolutions and attendant changes in news-audience behaviors have had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs,” the survey said.

In some cases, it’s worse.

Researchers compared 2007 responses with a similar earlier poll and found that more people could identify the U.S. vice president, their own state governor or the president of Russia in the past than they can today.

There are few real whiz kids out there. Pew posed 23 questions about the White House, Congress, the war in Iraq and other current issues and found that of 1,502 adult respondents, only eight answered all the questions correctly.

The average respondent got 12 questions right. The survey also divided the participants into three knowledge levels, each of about one-third of the sample size — high knowledge, who got 15 questions right (35 percent of the survey); medium knowledge, 10 to 14 correct (31 percent); and low knowledge, fewer than 10 (34 percent).

Almost half of the men (45 percent) scored in the top third, compared with a quarter of the women. Republicans and Democrats were about even, with 36 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of the Democrats in the top tier.

“The knowledgeable public” is politically engaged, however: 90 percent of those who scored in the top third are registered voters, while three-fourths say that Washington issues affect them directly. Seven out of 10 of the top third “very much” enjoy keeping up with the news, compared with 16 percent of the least-informed group.

Specific news sources held sway. Those who read major newspaper Web sites, viewed or listened to the Comedy Channel’s “The Daily Show,” Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” National Public Radio and radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh were found to be among the most highly knowledgeable, with more than 50 percent of them being classified as such.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California Republican, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, were the most readily identified public figures; 93 percent knew them.

Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, was identified by 61 percent; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, by 49 percent; former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. by 29 percent; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates by 21 percent; and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, also by 21 percent.

In terms of news stories, 88 percent were aware of President Bush’s plans to increase troop levels in Iraq and three-quarters knew Mrs. Clinton is in the presidential race, but less than a quarter knew Congress passed a minimum-wage increase.

The poll was conducted March 9-12 and has a margin of error of three percentage points.

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