Last March when polls reported that 10% of the population thought Barack Obama was Muslim, I counseled calm: Obama is a new character on the scene. As people get to know him, that percentage will decline.
Instead, it's gone up. The newest poll from the Pew Research Center showed that 13% now believe he's Muslim - and a staggering 19% of McCain supporters believe him to be Muslim. Only 48% of Republicans say Obama is Christian (the balance is unsure).
This is truly frightening - not so much because of the implications for Obama but because of what it says about how we as Americans consume information. With more time, and more information swimming about, the public has become progressively less well informed.
To some extent this is about the politicization of mainstream media. Increasingly, people gravitate to the media sources that confirm their preconceived notions - Fox and Rush and WND.com for conservatives and Olberman and Kos for liberals. If that's true, that represents a searing indictment of conservative media - for either promoting or failing to shoot down a blatant falsehood. (There may be counter examples on the liberal media; please post if you have them).
But this can't be the whole explanation. After all, the percentage of independents who think Obama is Muslim also rose from 8% to 14%.
Then I noticed this: the biggest increase in the percentage who think he's Muslim was among young people. Only 8% of people from 18-29 believed he's Muslim in March. Now, 17% do. By contrast, among those 65 and older, the percentage who thought he was Muslim actually dropped during this period.
What's the biggest differentiator between those groups when it comes to news consumption? The internet. Younger people get their information online. Older people still use print.
As the editor of a website, I hate to even suggest this but is it possible that this Muslim factoid provides chilling proof that web-dependent news consumers end up more poorly informed than in the olden days? Is it possible that all the fuddy-duddy old media people who warned about the internet dumbing us all down were right?
(Originally posted at Steve Waldman's blog at Beliefnet.)