29 September 1999
Our current howler (part II): Bad with names
Synopsis: A recent Pew survey revealed a fact the press corps rarely mentions.
Commentary by Chris Matthews, Tom Squitieri
Hardball, CNBC, 9/15/99
Commentary by Tony Snow
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 9/19/99
Commentary by Alexis Simendinger
Hardball, CNBC, 9/16/99
Guess Whos Running Now?
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 9/16/99
What's wrong with letting scribes play around with concepts
like "statistically even?" Some of the pundits start
cutting cornersand start telling the story they like. Here, for
example, was a tabloid talker at the start of his September 15
MATTHEWS: What is going on out there? I thought Al Gore had
the thing made. I thought he'd get a decent challenge by Dollar
Bill Bradley, but now Bradley is tied in the latest New York
state poll. He's tied with him in the latest New Hampshire polls.
These polls are matching up. They're confirming each other. Something
is going wrong. Al Gore has six pollsters working for him in New
Hampshire trying to change the numbers. But people don't like
the dog food apparently.
But if Gore is trying to "change the numbers," he
should hire the tabloid talker. The New Hampshire polls which
the talker called "tied" all showed Gore ahead (by four,
five, and seven points; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/99). In the
New York poll which the talker called "tied," Gore had
a two-point lead. Where others had spoken muddily about "statistical"
ties, the talker had dropped the qualifier entirely. Four days
later, our buddy Tony Snow got carried away, and somehow had Bradley
SNOW: Let's switch now to presidential politics. We've seen
all the Washington papers, anyway, New York papers are filled
with stories, Mara, that Bill Bradley and Al Gore
MARA LIASSON: That's right
SNOW: are even, or Bill Bradley even edging ahead in New
York and New Hampshire.
As we saw yesterday, this was the morning when a Post page-one
headline said Bradley had pulled even in New Hampshire, although
the article cited only the three statewide polls in which Gore
actually led. The headline writer had inaccurately called Bradley
"even;" on that basis, Snow put him ahead!
Yep. It's just a hint of the mischief that can ensue when scribes
play around with "statistical" ties. At the time, with
three polls all showing Gore ahead, there was little chance that
the race was actually tied, and no reason at all to think that
Bradley was somehow actually leading.
After his September 15 fumble, a tabloid talker took two nights
off. But the next night, with guest host Lawrence O'Donnell discussing
more polls, an irregular guest threw in a statistic that raised
an intriguing question:
SIMENDINGER: I think one of the things we should talk about
a little bit is a surprising outcome in a Pew poll this week,
a poll of 1200 Americans in which 37%, given the opportunity to
volunteer a name of someone running in the Republican party, could
not name a single individual, not Bush or anybody else. 50% could
not name a Democrat who was running.
Howard Kurtz had discussed the poll in that morning's Washington
Post. In fact, 54% of Pew respondents couldn't name a Democrat
running for president. Kurtz called the result a "stunning
finding"a measure of how little attention Americans are
paying to the early stages of the 2000 race.
Why had Simendinger mentioned the survey? Here is what she
SIMENDINGER: When you look at numbers like that, you ask yourself
what's going on with some of the specific numbers we're looking
at, and I think there's a lot of truth in this idea that American
voters at this point are not focused in on this, they don't know
a lot about the candidates, and they're reacting, I think, somewhat
superficially to what the news may be week to week, day to day,
or to the overall trend that they're reading or hearing about.
Or to what the spin may be night to night. In fact, Simendinger
was being polite when she said the voters didn't know "a
lot" about the candidates. The truth is, half of them don't
even know the candidates' names, which does in fact raise
an obvious question about our discussions of current polls. If
(as Kurtz reported) only 54% of Americans know Bush is a candidate,
and only 46% of Americans know Gore is a candidate, then how much
meaning can one invest in the result of a preference poll? (Only
16% knew Bradley was running.) What exactly can we glean from
preference polls, when half of Americans don't even know that
Bush and Gore are running for office? The question didn't seem
to interest O'Donnell; when Simendinger raised the matter, he
immediately moved on, asking Jerry Nachman to review recent Bradley
stump speeches. But here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, the
analysts roared in our vast viewing chamber, lustily cheering
Simendinger's vain effort to deepen the tired debate.
Did the Pew report offer a "stunning" finding? Clearly,
in one way, it did. By any standard, it is remarkable to learn
how uninformed the electorate actually is. The finding flies in
the face of standard presumptions about the way our democracy
functions. As Kurtz noted in his column, the Pew poll, conducted
from September 1-12, followed several weeks of intense media coverage
of the silly Bush cocaine flap. Even after that exciting coverage,
46% of Americans still didn't know that Bush was running for president.
But in one other way, the report was hardly surprising, because
information surveys routinely reveal the public's unshakable ignorance
of almost all hard news topics. What made the latest example seem
"stunning?" Only the fact that the media rarely reports
this state of affairs. In the current instance, for example, O'Donnell
wasn't the only news leader uninterested in the Pew results. In
the five major papers we cover, only Kurtz discussed the Pew findings.
Other papers plowed ahead with their normal discussions of polls,
never telling their readers a significant factthat the respondents
cited in the polls don't have a clue about the unfolding election.
When the press discusses poll results, it rarely reveals an
important factrespondents routinely lack factual knowledge of
issues on which they're opining. Another remarkable recent survey
explored this striking state of affairs.
Tomorrow: It's the law: when the public's ignorance
does come to light, the press offers pleasant excuses.
Just as we said it was: James Dao, in this morning's
New York Times, on Senator Bradley's newly-revealed health plan:
DAO: The former Senator said his plan would not require new
taxes, and could be financed using the non-Social Security surplus,
projected to be more than $1 trillion over the next decade, as
well as cost-saving measures. But he underscored the preliminary
nature of the proposal by saying he did not have a backup financing
plan if the economy turned sour and the surplus evaporated.
God help us allwhere to begin? Dao's own newspaper has carefully
explained that the "projected surplus" is based on spending
caps that no one believes will be kept (see THE DAILY HOWLER,
8/23/99). The projected surplus will "evaporate" even
if the economy stays healthy. This fact has been explained again
and again, most recently in a Nancy Gibb lead story in Time
("Phantom Surplus," 9/20/99). But, because both the
White House and the Congress are pretending the surplus will exist,
the daily press corps is obediently playing along too (see THE
DAILY HOWLER, 8/27/99). Yesterday, Bradley became the latest major
player to spend the phantom future money, without anyone is the
press corps asking him if he thinks the future caps will really
be kept. Would Bradley keep the future caps? Surely he wouldn'tbut
no one asked him. Again we see the press corps' instinct for proceeding
in obvious error.