Greased Polls


Surveys show that most people are getting fooled most of the time

We’re being constantly strafed by obvious propaganda in these last few days of the most expensive—and potentially most costly, if you know what I mean—presidential campaign in history.

But we’re also being shelled by friendly fire. And these wounds ought to convince people not to trust the bullshit that pollsters are spreading around and that newspapers are passing off as news.

The usually reliable (see this AIPAC story) Robin Wright of The Washington Post recently based an entire story on a poll of Iraqis by the International Republican Institute. In the story, Wright noted that religious leaders were leading in the poll. The whole story was spin city by the U.S. government and its puppet regime in Iraq, even though Wright noted that chief puppet Ayad Allawi was losing ground.

Despite that bad news, the story’s slant was ridiculous. Wright quoted an unidentified congressional staff member as saying:

“We had convinced everyone—Americans and Iraqis—that things might change with the return of sovereignty, but, in fact, things went the other way.”

When exactly were Iraqis “convinced” that things might change? There is no evidence of that whatsoever.

The story’s full of other bull, too, like this paragraph:

Despite the current strife, about two-thirds of Iraqis do not believe civil war is imminent, the poll found. Asked if their households had been hurt by violence, injuries, death or monetary loss over the past year, only 22 percent of those questioned said yes—a figure that surprised pollsters and U.S. officials.

And elsewhere, Wright noted:

More than 45 percent of Iraqis also believe that their country is heading in the wrong direction, and 41 percent say it is moving in the right direction.

That close, eh? Don’t believe it. We don’t know how the poll’s questions were worded, let alone any other details of its methods. So who or what is this International Republican Institute? Wright tells us (kind of) at the end:

The IRI, founded in 1983, is a private, nonprofit organization that has worked in more than 60 countries to advance democracy worldwide. With U.S. grants, it has been in charge of public opinion polls in advance of the election.

Why was IRI picked by the Bush regime to conduct polling in Iraq? Go to Wikipedia’s entry, which includes this detail:

The International Republican Institute, or IRI, is a Washington, D.C.–based political organization in the United States. The IRI is loosely affiliated with the Republican Party and works closely with other rightist think tanks and foreign policy groups, including the National Endowment for Democracy. Some of its funding comes from the federal government.

IRI’s stated mission is to “support the growth of political and economic freedom, good governance and human rights around the world by educating people, parties and governments on the values and practices of democracy.” However, it has also been linked to efforts to foment a violent military coup in Haiti.

IRI was set up by the GOP’s cold warriors in 1983. By complete coincidence, Dick Cheney got the IRI’s Freedom Award in late 2001, and this year’s winner was Condoleezza Rice. Past winners include Ronald Reagan, Lynne Cheney, Bill Frist, and Colin Powell. And our current Afghan puppet, Hamid Karzai.

Yes, when I think of “freedom,” I think of that bunch. Check out Cheney’s acceptance speech here. And go to the IRI’s website and you’ll see that its own story on the poll of Iraqis is headlined this way: “Optimistic Outlook on the Future and Support for Democracy.”

Now why did the estimable Washington Post give a poll by this partisan group so much ink? I expect that behavior out of TV nitwits, not the print media.

If you’re going to write about polls, at least consider the source. A good U.S. fount of Iraqi and American opinions is available at PIPA, run by the Center on Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Another careful and exhaustive poll of Iraqi opinion was conducted by the BBC last spring. (See this Bush Beat item, “Our Man in Baghdad.”)

How—and how often—these numbers are drummed into our brains is another matter. I’m in the camp of those who think that polls produce self-fulfilling prophecies. The constant reporting by the mass media on poll results is destructive, not just a waste of time. Most polls are done poorly, reported poorly, and vastly overemphasized. News organizations rely on them, instead of doing the heavy-duty reporting that organizations like the Center for Public Integrity do. Check out the center’s latest report on the communications industry, “Networks of Influence.”

Numerous other watchdog groups—even congressmen like Henry Waxman and Carl Levin—do the kind of investigative reporting that most news organizations shy away from. (The Washington Post is not one of those news organizations; its coverage of the Bush regime has far outstripped that of The New York Times.)

For more on this perspective, either watch Canadian news or read up on CBC’s chief news editor, Tony Burman. You get only a taste of this from the U.S. press.

This morning, for instance, the Post‘s own director of polling, Richard Morin, wrote a lengthy apologia on behalf of pollsters. Only near the end of this story do you get a hint of another side of the media, as represented by people like Burman. To Morin’s credit, he does give Burman a say, even if most readers won’t get that far:

At least one news organization has decided to stop doing pre-election polls altogether. Not because they’re inaccurate but because they’re addictive.

“They suck all of the oxygen out of the coverage by reducing the whole thing to who’s up and who’s down,” says Tony Burman, chief news editor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “Besides, the methodology is really becoming suspect. The response rate has become low, and reliability has suffered. So we decided not to commission them on our own and be very restrained in covering them.”

The CBC abruptly quit pre-election polling in May, weeks before the Canadian national election. The goal, Burman wrote in an e-mail to staff, was “to ensure that more coverage and attention during the campaign will be devoted to the actual issues in front of the electorate—leaving the determination of actual ‘voter preference’ to the voters on election day.”

Burman urges his counterparts in this country to do the same. “There is a lot of empty coverage in the United States devoted to horse-race polls that just fill up the airtime. It’s the quintessential example of lazy journalism.” He says he’s “not lecturing anyone on it. We’re just happy that we’re getting the balance right.”

Morin, of course, counters by ending his defense of polls with a section titled “Still a Valuable Tool.” One of his points is this:

Pre-election polls in 2000 were the most accurate in nearly three decades. Pollsters point to data showing that in 2002, nearly nine out of 10 candidates who were ahead in surveys conducted immediately before the election ended up winning, with the overwhelming majority of these polls coming within 3 percentage points of the winner’s victory margin.

Morin neglects to mention that, as I’ve pointed out before, more than 80 percent of U.S. House races in 2002 were won by landslide margins—more than 20 percentage points—because of gerrymandering. Wow, and the pollsters got those set-up races right? Congratulations.

Yes, he and other people who overplay polls are indeed valuable tools.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 28, 2004

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