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30 September 1999

Our current howler (part III): What, them worry?

Synopsis: When the public doesn’t 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 don’t 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 fact—even-steven in New York. Let's look at the numbers 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 issues—and 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 surveys—but 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 so—sorry, 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 untrue—that this level of public ignorance is unusual. Connolly gave a pleasing reply:

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 sorry—that'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 season.

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 and concerns.

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 secret—the 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.


Anchorman, tell us a story: On Wednesday night, Brian Williams discussed John McCain's appearance at the Reagan Library. We reprint his remarkable report:

WILLIAMS: At the Reagan Library in the state of California, what happened today may be another sign of the widely talked-about bad blood between the Reagans and the Bushes—Nancy Reagan, in a joint appearance with Senator John McCain, in a meeting room prior to an announced event, something that looked and felt like an endorsement from the first lady in a hugely popular administration in this country. There is speculation that the former first lady's support of McCain, Bush's chief rival, is the best evidence of that bad blood. The new Reagan biography out offers the clearest evidence yet that the Bushes were not particularly welcome in the Reagan White House.

This report is undisguised gossip. Mrs. Reagan's appearance "may be" a "sign" of the bad blood that has been "widely talked-about." Is there any such feeling on Mrs. Reagan's part? Williams shows no sign of knowing. Did Mrs. Reagan's appearance provide evidence of bad blood? "There is speculation" that it did, Williams says. Nor does Williams say that Mrs. Reagan endorsed McCain; he only says that it "looked and felt like an endorsement." It is astounding that this is reported as news. But then, what did you expect from a news organization that broadcasts Chris Matthews each evening?