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The Poll Story

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 news people say; and 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 (MSM) has become equally dangerous, pathetic and, yes, a threat to democracy. It’s just a matter of degree. From Julian Assange, to health care, to Sarah Palin, the truth is now a relative thing. Typically, the MSM uncritically adopts the rhetoric of whomever provides the information, often as a gesture to make sure the information keeps coming. If the “information,” accurate or not, arrives at the doorstep, there’s no need to do any actual investigative journalism. That saves money and ratings are kept up. 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 has 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 again, reporting on polls is easy, risk-free and cheap. 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 something like 68 percent 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. Why don’t we ask if New Yorkers know whether New York state even 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 percent 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?

While the news is dominated by talking about polls instead of news, we become a nation of morons. Now, I know I’m treading 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 Vitter, had been nailed in a scandal involving a prostitute. He won reelection 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. The science of polling is the science of manipulation and predetermined 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- to 15-percent bias toward Republican and conservative candidates. And this became clear only because it was a rare instance of lots of different pollsters wading into the same pool at the same time. And polls are likely getting dumber. Polls generally focus on people with landline 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 should consider reporting news instead of nonsense. I just called around to some of my friends and 70 percent of them agree.

—Paul Rapp

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