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Working the Polls

Once again, the ConWeb doesn't follow the behavior it demands from the rest of the news media.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 4/23/2002

This just in: The ConWeb attacks alleged misuse of polls by the media even as they report poll results to promote their own causes.

Yeah, yeah, that's not exactly news. But the issue is getting some new attention thanks to the latest entry on the conservative book circuit, "Mobocracy" by Matthew Robinson. According to the blurb at the NewsMax store (WorldNetDaily is selling the book, too), "Mobocracy" is about how "The media is lying to you... and they’re using 'public opinion' to keep you misinformed." The blurb continues:

Welcome to the world of Mobocracy – a place where opinion polls, wielded by a cynical, ideologically driven press, distort the news and change opinion. It’s a place where the fleeting whims of a largely ignorant populace are used to supplant thoughtful, reasonable debate, and where, all too often, pollsters and the art they practice are shrouded behind a cloudy curtain of clever wording, data manipulation, and hidden agendas.

The presumption here, of course, is that it's only the "liberal media" who would dare to promote polls that conform to a certain worldview, which is why NewsMax and WorldNetDaily are selling the book.

This issue was deemed important enough for NewsMax's Wes Vernon to do a two-part article about it. The first part summarizes the book's allegations (though it really more about Vernon's ramblings than actually quoting anything from the book), then settles into the obligatory attack on the Clintons (because it wouldn't be a NewsMax article if there wasn't one):

Enter Bill Clinton, the ultimate poll-driven politician, who relied on pollsters to drive his every move from where to take a vacation to whether he should tell the truth in one of his long string of scandals.

Clinton’s "politics by saxophone” is the end result of the simple-minded polling that plays on and encourages public apathy or ignorance. During his presidential campaign, he got a huge boost from his saxophone playing on TV’s long-defunct "Arsenio Hall Show."

So the next time a terrorist strikes the U.S. or we hear reports of China preparing to threaten us with nuclear blackmail, we can think back to the importance of "politics by saxophone” in the 1992 campaign.

Where to begin? One: What does Clinton's appearance on a TV show have to do with the subject at hand, let alone terrorism or China? Vernon doesn't bother to prove his contention that "politics by saxophone" is the "end result" of "simple-minded polling." Two: Why bother to note that the "Arsenio Hall Show" is "long-defunct," except to sneak in a gratuitous slam and imply that Hall is the same kind of loser Vernon considers Clinton to be? Three: Did Vernon read the recent Washington Monthly article on President Bush's polling operation? Probably not; NewsMax, since it so rarely runs anything critical of Bush, never reported on it.

The second part of Vernon's miniseries lists proposed remedies to alleged poll manipulation from the book. Among the recommencations is a notation to "bear in mind that high-quality debate is needed for high-quality opinion."

Vernon might want to avoid NewsMax then, because his employer is not exactly a purveor of "high-quality debate," not to mention a violator of some of the polling standards Vernon wants other media to follow in trying to gin up its own little "mobocracy."

The most egregious violation is NewsMax's reporting of the results of unreliable, easily manipulated opt-in polls as news stories. NewsMax has done this at least twice, in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election and recently in connection with Tipper Gore. NewsMax also treated one of its own opt-in polls as a news story, in which -- surprise! -- 98 percent of respondents said CBS' Dan Rather should be fired.

NewsMax also promotes other polls that reflect its biases, from downplaying the Enron scandal to support for a U.S. invasion of Iraq to showing that Elizabeth Dole isn't a carpetbagger for running for Senate in a state she hasn't lived in for 40 years. And then there were the polls NewsMax touted during the 2000 election that had Rick Lazio ahead of Hillary Clinton for that New York Senate seat.

NewsMax isn't alone in pushing polls that conform to its own ideology; WorldNetDaily and CNS do it too. Recent examples:

  • A WND story April 16 on a poll that claims "fewer than one person in three believes they get their money's worth for all of the taxes they pay annually." Note the kicker headline "The Power to Destroy," under which WND runs all stories about taxes and the Internal Revenue Service. (Naaah, no bias showing there.) The story also includes a plug for making permanent the $1.3 trillion tax cut passed by Congress last year.
  • "A new poll shows most Americans give Ronald Reagan a higher retrospective job approval rating than when he was in office," claims an April 8 CNS story. "In contrast Bill Clinton's retrospective rating slipped lower than his job approval rating while in office."
  • Another WND story, from Jan. 25, claiming "only slightly more than a quarter of all Democrats share Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's belief that a $1.35 trillion tax-cut plan pushed by President Bush last year was a mistake."

Look also at NewsMax's short-lived polling operation in cooperation with Zogby International. Look at, say, a poll in which a majority allegedly call for an impeachment inquiry of Bill Clinton's alleged connections with Chinese officials. The question is worded in a similar manner to examples Vernon cites in a February 2001 article attacking alleged liberal bias in polling questions. (Also note that the supporting evidence in the accompanying article screams for an inquiry, in typical biased NewsMax style.)

Who's surprised that NewsMax and the ConWeb would play the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do card (which they do a lot), accusing other members of the media of using polls that conform their own "liberal" views while doing the exact same thing to push conservative views? You don't need to take a poll to figure out the answer that question.

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