How Polling is Affecting Our Country
August 1, 2011
In a recent AIM Report entitled, “A Brief History of the Modern Media,” Roger Aronoff, Editor of Accuracy in Media, coherently outlined the dramatic changes in the media over the past 70 years. My parents and grandparents could check on local, state, national and international events via the newspapers, radio and even the movie newsreels, if they were lucky enough or had the time to go to the movies!
However, that all changed quickly and dramatically. Aronoff describes how TV news burst on the scene with 15 minute (and later 30 minute) nightly broadcasts during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. With one click of the dial you could pick the network you trusted most to give you the news of the day. You only had three choices: ABC, CBS or NBC. Then as the decades progressed the flood gates opened. Aronoff describes the advent of PBS, Ted Turner and CNN, C-SPAN, conservative talk radio, Fox News, MSNBC and the Internet. The news was everywhere. You could see it, read it, hear it and you could access it any time of the day or night. You could get all sides, all views and you had a plethora of choices, depending on whom you believed would give you the truth.
In fact there was so much opportunity out there that it led to concern about balance in reporting and editing. Did everyone have an equal amount of time to present their views? Was one side of an issue overexposed to the detriment of another? We had already lived under the “Fairness Doctrine” from 1949 to 1987, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation which required media outlets to present both sides of an issue in an equal amount of time because it was the “fair” thing to do. Aronoff pointed out that even “Accuracy in Media” founder, Reed Irvine, actually supported the Fairness Doctrine, because at the time it seemed like the only way conservative voices could be heard on the airwaves. When it became apparent that with the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal, conservative voices began to emerge on talk radio and other platforms, Mr. Irvine soon recognized that we were better off without it. As Aronoff pointed out, “It is more important that the press remain free than being forced to be fair, according to the standards of politicians or bureaucrats.” Mercifully, the Fairness Doctrine has been laid aside, but watch your backside; the liberals have not given up!
There is, however, a very troubling development regarding the controversy about a free versus a fair press. The issue of polling causes one to wonder if manipulation would pass the smell test of a free media. In the name of a free press, should information gathered from early exit polling be leaked early causing some late voters to not feel the need to vote? Should elections be called before all polls are closed? Most media outlets, to their credit, have voluntarily shown restraint on this in recent years. However, is it a legitimate function of a “free” press? In my U.S. Senate re-election effort in 1996 all media outlets called the election for my opponent, Dick Swett, based upon pre-election polling and exit polling on election day. The next-day newspapers even had him winning based upon that information. I took much satisfaction in seeing Mr. Swett join President Dewey as two of the shortest serving “winners” in political history. A stunned Dan Rather (who with others had called me the loser) asked me the next day, “How did this happen, Senator Smith?” I replied, “It is quite simple, Mr. Rather. Elections are decided by the voters and not the media.”
There is another classic story from New Hampshire on this subject. In 1978 a conservative and unknown airline pilot named Gordon Humphrey defeated popular incumbent Democrat, Tom McIntyre. Humphrey was dismally behind in every poll and given zero chance to win. Several days after the election, McIntyre was asked how he could lose when he was so far ahead in the polls. McIntyre is alleged to have replied that he took a poll after the election and was leading then too! Fortunately for Humphrey and me, the people who supported us ignored the predictions and voted.
If polls are honest and fair, they can be a valuable tool to develop information on numerous issues, and can be helpful to society. However, they can be exploited, not only as I mention above, but in other ways. Leading questions can be asked to garner the opinion wanted by the pollster as opposed to the actual opinion held by the person polled. So-called “push polling” can provide negative (and often untrue) information about a candidate in the form of a question. For example, would you vote for candidate “X” if you knew he was a child molester? Of course you would not, but the questioner does not tell you that the candidate is NOT a child molester.
There are less nasty, but still troubling examples of polling exploitation. Media outlets spend a lot of money on polling. Why? The result of an election is the result, isn’t it? Why can’t we just let people vote? Is it necessary to be subjected to being told how we are going to vote? Media outlets want to look good, so they can attract viewers, listeners or readers. Predict an election and then on election night, report your prediction and look competent, smart and accurate. Increase those ratings. Beat the competition. Get the story first. Truthfully, these polls can be used to discourage, manipulate or even suppress voters from coming out to vote. Many Republicans still believe to this day that the media deliberately called the 2000 presidential election in Florida before the polls closed in the Panhandle to suppress the vote. Right or wrong, the point is, why open up that can of worms in the first place?
I believe that the First Amendment was written to protect and provide for a free press to report the news and attack or support a candidate or viewpoint. I would support that right until my last breath. Even unfair comment must be tolerated to keep it free. However, the question is not only free versus fair. It is more profound than that. Polling allows the media to manipulate and sometimes even change the outcome of an election, not based upon an issue, an editorial comment, opinion or even the dislike of someone, but rather on the manipulation of the mechanics of the electoral process. Is this protected under the First Amendment? Just food for thought.
Finally, the use of polling as exploitation and manipulation is not exclusively a sin of the media. Politicians have taken the concept of polling to a whole new level of abuse. Candidates and politicians today can’t get out of bed without taking a poll first. They have surrounded themselves with issue polls, tracking polls, research polls, election polls, and they even poll what kind of tie they should wear in an interview. It is a cottage industry of unbelievable proportions among our candidates and leaders. It seems as if the first person hired is the pollster. President Clinton polled almost daily in the White House and used polls to develop his positions on the issues to insure that he was on the “right track” with voters. He was not the first to do so and he is far from the last.
Polling to determine your view on an issue is not leadership. Leadership is doing the right thing whether the majority of people agree with you or not. In a republican form of government, a candidate is elected to lead. If voters object to what you decide, they have an opportunity at the next election to let you know that. I was often asked, “Do you vote your personal belief or the view of the majority of your constituents?” My answer was always the same: “My personal view as to what I thought was best.” Most of the time you are not sure of the views of a majority of your constituents. If the answer is to poll them, then we do not need elected representatives to hold seats in DC or any other level of government. Just take a poll and have a computer enter the result. That is hardly what our Founders had in mind. Some say that based on the way our current so called leaders act, we might be better off!
As we listen to our leaders in the current budget battle, we hear them hold firm to their positions because they believe the majority of their constituents want them to do so. Maybe that is why we have no resolution to a $14 trillion national debt. We have become a nation of pollsters, who tell us who we are, what we want, who to elect and what they should do after they win. Therefore, no leadership and no resolution to the crisis. In more graphic terms, no cojones!
Could you imagine the Founders taking a poll before signing the Declaration of Independence? Or perhaps Lincoln before writing the Emancipation Proclamation? Or General Eisenhower before the invasion of Normandy? All would say, first of all, I don’t have time, and secondly, who cares what the poll might say? We need to lead on this now.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if we lost our liberties, not because the press abused the First Amendment, but because the politicians did?
Former Senator Bob Smith (R-NH), known as “Senator Bob,” has joined Accuracy in Media as a Special Contributor. His columns and commentaries on media and politics will be available on a regular basis on the AIM website at www.aim.org. He can be contacted at email@example.com.