30 September 1999
Our current howler (part III): What, them worry?
Synopsis: When the public doesnt have a clue, the press finds a way to explain it.
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 9/20/99
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 9/27/99
Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Ceci Connolly
Reliable Sources, CNN, 9/18/99
What you dont want to know
Martin Schram, The Washington Times, 9/26/99
No doubt about it. For comic relief in polling stories, you
turn to margin of error. A tabloid talker was barking briskly
at the start of his 9/20 show:
MATTHEWS (9/20): Let's get the news from Karen Tumulty. This
is amazing. We've been talking about this. The slow creeping up
of Bill Bradley, the catching up to Al Gore. We've said "statistically
even," "margin of error," all the gobbledy-gook.
Here's a facteven-steven in New York. Let's look at the numbers
here...now it's 42-42.
It was the first time that Bradley polled even in a key state,
and the talker threw away margin of error, pretending he didn't
know that the concept applies even when polls come out even. (Bradley
might actually have been ahead. Gore might have been ahead,
too.) The buffoonery was more delicious this week, when a New
Hampshire poll had Bradley three points up:
MATTHEWS (9/27): Well, take a look at the latest Time
magazine poll. Bill Bradley has the lead over Al Gore in the important
New Hampshire primary. He's ahead now, not just statistically
even, but 44-41.
The talker's theory was clearly spelled out. When Gore's ahead,
it's really a tie. When Bradley's ahead, he's ahead. "Margin
of error" and "statistically even" only apply when
it suits you.
But the press corps has a more serious failing in the way it
reports opinion polls. It refuses to report that the people polled
may not know what they're talking about. Last week, a Pew survey
showed that 54% of adult Americans can't name a Democrat running
for president (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/99). 37% couldn't name
a Republican; 46% couldn't name Gov. Bush. But, in the five major
papers which we review, only the Washington Post even mentioned
the survey; and, when a scribe raised the point on the inventive
show Hardball, a guest host simply moved on. Journalists
happily motored along, saying what the White House preference
polls mean, not stopping to ask what conclusions we might draw
from the results of the remarkable Pew survey.
But then, information surveys routinely show that the
public is grossly misinformed on major issuesand the celebrity
press corps is rarely disposed to report these awkward facts.
The press corps loves reporting how dumb our school kids are,
but seldom reports a striking fact: our school kids' parents
don't often know a whole lot about public affairs, either.
What items make up the federal budget? Information surveys
routinely show that the public has little idea. But newspapers
publish opinion polls on federal spending, without mentioning
the respondents' lack of knowledge. In 1993, for example, after
months of debate, the Clinton budget plan passed the Congress.
According to a subsequent Wall Street Journal survey, 85% of people
in the $20,000-to-$50,000 income range thought their income taxes
would go up under the plan. In fact, the plan raised income taxes
for working couples only if their taxable income exceeded $140,000.
Such examples of public ignorance are routinely generated by information
surveysbut are rarely reported in the press.
Why does the press corps shy away from reporting public misinformation?
The question asks us to speculate about motive, a practice we
try to avoid. But we do notice this: the press corps often mimics
politicians in its pandering tributes to the public's great wisdom.
When embarrassing surveys hit the news, pundits step up with reassuring
excuses. Such pleasing conduct was on display in response to the
Pew survey this month.
Example: Reliable Sources on CNN, with Howard Kurtz
in the saddle. To his great credit, Kurtz had discussed the Pew
survey in the Post, and he now raised the matter again:
KURTZ: Ceci [Connolly], I'm wondering, there was a Pew research
poll the other day that asked the people to name a Democratic
candidate for president. Half couldn't do sosorry, Al Gore. And
more than a third couldn't name a Republican candidate. So as
we go on and on about the effect of the Reform Party and so forth,
I wonder, are people just tuning out at this stage?
The question implied something that is probably untruethat
this level of public ignorance is unusual. Connolly gave a pleasing
CONNOLLY: I think what it means is that most people are going
about their everyday lives as they should be, but in some of these
key states that we're spending a lot of time, Iowa and New Hampshire,
later California and New York, they are tuning in, and that's
where the candidates are and that's where we are.
The public's ignorance was just as it should be! We also enjoyed
the defensive tone; Connolly instinctively defended the press
corps' conduct, which was hardly at issue in the Pew results.
It may be true that New Hampshire voters are more aware of
the hopefuls than the general public. But when this many people
don't know so basic a fact, we're sorrythat's a remarkable bit
of news about our American democracy. But Connolly wasn't the
only scribe who took the Pew results in stride. In the Post, Kurtz
had called the Pew results "stunning." Syndicated columnist
Martin Schram gave the scribe a little bit of what-for:
SCHRAM: But of course, this really was not "stunning"
news to you at all. You already knew what you didn't know (see
also: didn't-care-to-know) about the candidates in this pre-pre-campaign
Schram took the defense of the public to the next level. It's
not just OK that the public doesn't know; it's OK that they don't
even care! Schram continued in populist fashion:
SCHRAM: It was only "stunning" news to the Washington
journalists who have already spent a year or more covering the
presidential campaign of the year 2000.
You can't go wrong bashing insiders. Schram cited the Pew director,
as he explained the latest results:
SCHRAM: "People are more disengaged now than in the past
because we've had an extra year of the horse race," the article
quoted Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, as saying.
According to Kohut, people know less because there's been more
coverage! Everyone has a pleasing explanation for the public's
lack of knowledge. Kohut implied that the ignorance surpassed
past levels, though Schram's article provided no evidence of that.
Schram eventually suggested that the widespread ignorance was
a sign of the public's vast wisdom:
SCHRAM: [A]nother way to look at it is to say that since the
coverage has been all about the unimportant pre-campaign horse
race, and the ubiquitous torrent of campaign money, it is no wonder
that regular people throughout the country figured out that the
news media was out-of-touch and out-of-sync with their real needs
In Schram's world, people don't know who the candidates are.
But somehow, the same people who lack this basic knowledge know
what the early reporting has been all about.
None of the pundits we have quoted thought to mention the dirty
little secretthe public is frequently, routinely uninformed
about all manner of public issues. Tomorrow, we review another
recent, remarkable survey, which suggests a way the press could
improve its reporting of poll results.