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28 June 1999

Our current howler (part II): Asleep on their towels

Synopsis: Ten-year-olds love to search for the truth. Why can’t the press corps do likewise?

Commentary by Tim Russert, Dan Rather
Russert, CNBC, 6/26/99

Commentary by Tim Russert, Claire Shipman, Gwen Ifill, Lisa Myers
Meet the Press, NBC, 6/27/99

Bushwhacked
Eric Alterman, The Nation, 7/12/99


This weekend, we took the analysts for their annual trip up to the rocky shore of New Hampshire, and they splashed and screamed in the frigid waters off New Castle, the "great island" near Portsmouth. Gov. Bush was there ten days before, beaming postcards to the nation. But now all we saw were local children, examining mussels, snails and crabs in the tide pools of the rough, rocky coast.

But when we returned to DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters and began reviewing the pundits' latest efforts, we can't say that we found a corresponding instinct to conduct a great search for the truth. Concerning Bush's emergence as White House front-runner, for example, Tim Russert had said this to Dan Rather:

RUSSERT (6/26): I asked Governor Bush, "How did this happen?" He doesn't know! He woke up and said, "You're ahead in the polls." He doesn't, no one can explain why George Bush has emerged so quickly and so dramatically.

"I believe the governor when he says that," Rather said, making it perfectly clear that he doesn't, then went on to list five reasons for Gov. Bush's emergence. But the analysts simply shook their heads at Russert's credulous recitation. The notion that Bush just woke up one day and found himself ahead in the polls is, of course, an image drawn directly from a Bush campaign postcard. We mean no disrespect to Gov. Bush to say that this picture is simply absurd; but it does nothing except diminish Russert, to see him able to mouth such a groaner. Can Russert really believe it: that Bush just woke up one day on top, and still can't figure how he got there? We pictured children, crawling on rocks, struggling to study the world around them. And then we looked at the credulous grins that inexplicably beam out from our press corps.

How had Gov. Bush first emerged? As you'll recall, one of the ways he emerged-known to Bush-was described by Time last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/25/99). In early polling, forty percent of respondents had believed "George Bush" was the governor's ex-president dad! And, according to the current Zogby poll, substantial numbers still believe it's President Bush about whom folks are polling!

But you didn't hear it from Russert or Rather, or from the correspondents on Meet the Press. As it turned out, NBC had tried to figure out how much people know about Dub. Sadly, here's how they did it:

RUSSERT (6/27): Lisa Myers, we asked our voters, viewers, about George W. Bush. What do they know about him? And it was fascinating, the results. "A lot," said 39%, or "a fair amount," they knew about that. "Some," said 29%. "Very little," 32%. So a majority of the people in the country say they don't know very much about George W. Bush, and yet at this stage, they're kinda supporting him!

Readers, there are a lot of ways a network could learn how much voters know about Bush. Plainly, NBC selected the least effective possible way to answer this particular question. How did NBC determine if voters "knew a lot" about Bush? NBC simply asked if they did! Of course-but the problems with this plan are quite obvious. For example, voters who think "George Bush" is his dad don't know they have the two mixed up; asking them how much they know about Bush is like letting ten-year-olds provide their own math scores. And yet this is the way a major network goes about learning how much voters know-and the way at least one major pundit seeks the truth on important elections.

By contrast, Eric Alterman, in this week's Nation, mentioned the confusion about Gov. Bush, and he reminds us there are actual ways to survey public information:

ALTERMAN: Bush's poll numbers, moreover, start to descend when pollsters go to the trouble to inform respondents that he is not his father. In a New York Times poll on the popularity of various members of the Bush family, 73 percent professed an opinion of the former President, George Herbert Walker Bush, and for 66 percept, it was favorable. By the time questioners got to his son, the current governor of Texas, however, 70% had no opinion whatever.

Unfortunately, in an article full of insight about our current discourse, Alterman is a bit unclear here. Apparently, he describes a survey in which people are asked their opinion of Gov. Bush only after it is made clear that Bush-the-son is the person in question. Needless to say, there are many ways that a careful survey could learn how much is known about Bush. The approach NBC chose, which Russert trumpeted, is the silliest approach that a network could take.

No one on Russert's three-member panel mentioned the problem with what he had said. Again, we marveled to think that this is how we conduct the world's greatest public discourse. On Saturday, we had watched eager children climb wet, slippery rocks, in a day-long search for the bone-cold truth. But there wouldn't be any scraped elbows and knees among Russert's languid NBC panel.

 

Tomorrow: We start a four-day look at mainstream press coverage of Al Gore's campaign kick-off announcement.

Asleep on their towels: Again, we don't intend to criticize Bush because some folks don't know who he is yet. We think Bush's success in Texas speaks for itself. And we express no view about what voters will think when they do start to pay more attention.

We do think it's pointless to describe voters' "opinions" at a time when the voters aren't paying attention. But if NBC insists on wasting time in this way, it ought to make an actual effort to determine how much voters know.