Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Manufacturing Consent

CNN Circles the Wagons on Polling

COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW - Disputes over polling techniques, once the exclusive province of statistic geeks and partisan bloggers, heated up and spilled over to the public domain today.

The well-financed liberal advocacy group, MoveOn.org, inserted the issue into the campaign by taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times which accuses Gallup of "refusing to fix a longstanding problem with their [sic] likely voter methodology," and criticized two media outlets, CNN and USA Today, each of which pays Gallup for the polls and the right to release the results.

MoveOn's ad argues: "Gallup's methodology has predicted lately that Republican turnout on Election Day is likely to exceed Democrats' by six to eight percentage points. But exit polls show otherwise: in each of the last two Presidential elections, Democratic turnout exceeded Republican by four to five points. That discrepancy alone can account for nearly all of Bush's phantom 14-point lead," reported by Gallup a couple of weeks ago.

Often, CNN covers contentious issues like this with sound bites from both sides, treating both positions roughly equally. But not this time. After all, a blow to Gallup's reputation as a reliable polling service is also a blow to CNN. So, on the network's "Inside Politics" this afternoon, it dealt with the issue this way:

Anchor Judy Woodruff began by briefly outlining MoveOn's complaint: "[R]ecent polls have shown George W. Bush leading John Kerry and MoveOn.org claims Gallup's polling techniques exaggerate Republican support." Woodruff then gave Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport almost three minutes to respond, uninterrupted, to the charges. Naturally, Newport defended Gallup's methodology, but essentially asked viewers to take it on faith that he knows what he's doing.

End of segment.

With that nifty sign-off, CNN implicitly confirmed a criticism of itself that was leveled in the MoveOn ad: the charge that CNN winds up "acting as unquestioning promotional partners [with Gallup], rather than as critical journalists." For this was not the journalism of a disinterested party with no ax to grind. This was PR.

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I hate polls, as I think the media too often turns the latest "numbers" into the story rather than investigating the differences between a set of candidates. Another thing I don't like about them is that their release (whether accurate or not) can influence how undecided people vote (if they even bother to vote at all). Personally, I think most of the polls you see on TV are simply inaccurate.

Consider this: There are something like 169 million people in this country with cell phones. The pollsters don't call these numbers. They also don't poll newly registered voters either (and registration drives have been fierce in this election cycle, especially for the Democrats). For example:


AFP - The New York Times, which compared registration data from January through July 2004 to the same period four years earlier, found new registration up 250 per cent in heavily Democratic areas of Ohio, compared to 25 per cent in Republican strongholds.

In Florida, where Al Gore lost to George W. Bush by a mere 537 votes after a recount battle was halted by the US Supreme Court, the Times examined voter rolls in 60 of 67 counties. It found new registration up 60 per cent in strongly Democratic areas and just 12 per cent in strongly Republican ones.
Just something to keep in mind.

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