Thursday, December 16, 2010

12.16.10 POLLS



This article originally appeared in the 12.16.10 issue of Metroland.

Been wanting to go here for months.

We hear all kinds of sniping about Fox News, and to be sure there’s lots to complain about. The vast majority of what airs there is vile and biased nonsense, most of the current putative Republican candidates for president are on the Fox payroll, we know that Fox management actively controls what its people say (last week it was revealed that the term “public option” was banned during the run–up to the health care vote) and we know Fox News’ parent company gave piles of money to Republicans during the last election cycle. And that’s just the money we know about.

But really, the mainstream media is equally dangerous, pathetic, and, yes, a threat to democracy. It’s just a small matter of degree. From Julian Assange, to health care, to Sarah Palin, truth is now a relative thing. Typically, the MSM uncritically adopts the rhetoric of whoever provides it with information, often as a gesture to make sure the information keeps coming. When the information, accurate or not, arrives at the doorstep, there’s no need to do any real investigative journalism. That saves money! And ratings stay up, too: Julian Assange being labeled a rapist is good for ratings. Sarah Palin’s book signings are good for ratings. Death panels are good for ratings. And none of these things have anything to do with reality.

Take, for example, the MSM’s obsession with polls. Polls are golden. “The American people” think this, they think that. Pay attention to how much of the news you hear consists of the regurgitation of some poll findings, followed by an “analysis” by the “pollster” about what the findings mean. A healthy chunk of what is supposed to be “news” consists of nothing more than a report of what “the people” think the news is. Which is not what the news is. And reporting on polls is easy, risk-free and dirt cheap. And the more time the MSM talks about the polls, the less time there is to talk about actual, factual, real-world news.

Which results in a race to the ignorant bottom. Here’s an example. Over the summer a local reporter quoted a poll that said that something like 68% of New Yorkers favored holding a state constitutional convention. I was driving when I heard this, and almost went off the road into a tree. Really? A constitutional convention? Maybe first we should ask how many New Yorkers even know that New York has a state constitution? And then ask those who say yes (and I’m guessing this would be a small percentage), to describe one thing that’s in the state constitution that they would like to see changed. I guarantee you that the number of coherent responses would hover around zero. So, then, what does the “fact” that 68% of New Yorkers want a constitutional convention actually tell us? That people think New York State government somehow needs to change? We need a poll for that?

And as the news is dominated by talking about polls instead of news, we’ve become a nation of morons. Now, I know I’m on shaky ground by using poll data to dismiss poll data, but here we go anyway. When polls aren’t asking our opinions about complex policy issues we know nothing about, they are revealing that we’re quite stupid. One poll recently reported that a large majority of us didn’t know that Republicans just took over the House of Representatives. Another poll this fall showed a large majority of people in Louisiana didn’t know that their Senator, David Vittner, had been nailed in a scandal involving a prostitute. He won re-election shortly thereafter. A majority of Republicans think Obama is Muslim, and a quarter of them think he’s the Antichrist, for crying out loud! A few days after one poll announced that a majority of Americans approved of Elena Kagan joining the Supreme Court, another poll revealed that two-thirds of Americans could not name a single Supreme Court justice.

Polls have always been suspect, and for good reason. The science of polling is the science of manipulation and pre-determined outcomes. The results of a poll can be swayed by the wording of questions, the order of the questions, or the speech inflection of the person asking the questions. Last fall the Rasmussen campaign polls consistently showed a 10-15% bias towards Republican and conservative candidates. And this only became clear because it was a rare instance of lots of different pollsters wading into the same pool at the same time. And, as dumb as they are, polls are likely getting dumber. Polls generally focus on people with land-line phones. And urban, young, and educated folks are ditching landlines in favor of smartphones or VOIP phones in larger numbers than any other demographic. So they don’t count.

If the mainstream media is going to remain even a little relevant, it has to stop blaming the internet for its troubles and start reporting news instead of nonsense. I just called around to some of my friends and 70% of them agree.

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