Chapter 10: Fair and Foul Use — Taglines and Authorities

Ethical Markets Ethical Markets Originals

Chapter 10: Fair and Foul Use — Taglines and Authorities
By Alan F. Kay, PhD
© 2004, (fair use with attribution and copy to author)
Aug. 9, 2004                    

Taglines in Polls

Survey research shows that there are a very small number, really only a handful of people, who are known by name to more than 80% of the general public.  A few icons in entertainment, sports, government and business are in this select circle. Even fewer stay in the circle for more than a decade.  If you were designing a questionnaire and wanted to get the public’s take on any of these people, good practice tells you to include a tagline that identifies the person beyond his/her name itself.  Let’s illustrate:

A question we mentioned at the opening of Chapter 8,

“Do you like or dislike Bill Gates?”

could be wasted if 20% of the public, when asked this question out-of-the-blue, were confused or doubtful about who that what’s-his-name fellow is.  After all, Bob Gates was head of the CIA under President George H.W. Bush, and most people have heard of dozens of Bills and Bobs and Gates.  So, it is no surprise that the tagline, “chairman of Microsoft” in,

“Do you like or dislike Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft?”

reduces the confusion and shrinks the doubtful group among respondents.  The desired drop in DKs that follows proves that including the tagline is worthwhile.

We are dealing with the richest man in the world, in the news daily, transforming the economy, admired, hated, loved and feared.  If he needs a tagline in survey research — everyone else does too.

Sometimes the tagline is so clear and powerful that it carries most of the burden of producing a valid question response.  In three Y2K surveys in 1998-1999, questions were asked about who should get the blame if failure of computer chips to handle dates beginning after 1/1/00 proved to be a big national disaster, as most people in mid-1999 thought quite possible.  Some questions were asked about the responsibility and accountability for such a disaster of both particular groups and key individuals.  The latter included “President Bill Clinton,” “Vice President Al Gore,” and “Bill Gates, president of Microsoft.”  The taglines for Clinton and Gore were brief but adequate.  When going down the list a new name appeared, John Koskinen, it would have been a joke not to include his tagline, “the White House Y2K czar”.  That position was known well-enough to conclude from the response percentages that there was more salience for blaming Clinton and Gore than for blaming what’s-his-name, yeah – that fellow, John Koskinen.

When many years ago “engine” Charlie Wilson, president of General Motors, said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” it caused an uproar.  But the sentence you just read was strengthened by containing the nickname, the name, and the tagline, and if you were then asked your opinion about what he said, there would be no doubt about whom we were talking.

Taglines Identify and Media Establishes Authorities in Polls

Taglines play another role in political survey questions by leading us to pin down who the “authority figures” are.  If you are familiar with news and current affairs interview shows on radio and TV, you know the drill.  When they want expertise, talk-show hosts go for the highest ranking officials or issue-experts they can get.  The top shows like PBS’s Newshour and Larry King Live can get just about anybody they want.  They are not going to call in the secretary of labor when the issue is national security.  But they do have some choices with that issue.  Do they want the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the president’s national security advisor, or the president himself?  The answer is whichever official is the most knowledgeable and most recognized and trusted by the public in that issue at that time.  If you watch these shows night after night, you can begin to see inside the heads of the show’s hosts and producers as to how they answer that question.

The Public’s Take on Authority Figures

We saw in Chapter 6 when policies on major national security issues were tested that Clinton, notoriously inexperienced by background on national security matters, was upstaged a bit by Colin Powell, the most admired general since Eisenhower.  The relevant questions, both with and without the authority figures named, showed that Powell’s authority was slightly higher than the president’s, but not much.  Pose an issue area and pundits are pretty accurate in coming up with the name and “authority” ranking of the top national authority figures on that issue.

Group Authorities

Authority figures need not be individuals.  They can be groups of leaders and experts. The Pentagon sized its demands for funding from 1993 to 2001 based on a “Two War” policy stating that, “The United States should be prepared to fight two regional wars, each the size of the Gulf War, perhaps on opposite sides of the world, and win them at nearly the same time and without the help of allies.”  In surveys it was determined that full acceptance of each tenet of the policy found only 7.4% in favor of meeting the requirements of all of them together.  Only this tiny minority of Americans fully and completely supported the policy.  Support would increase if any of the required provisions were softened or omitted: (1) two wars (not just one); (2) each the size of the Gulf War; (3) on opposite sides of the world; (4) win them at nearly the same time; and (5) win them without the help of allies.  Some versions of the two-war policy that do not abandon any of these requirements, but soften them a bit can eke out 51% support for the policy, but only when a huge weight of authority is included in the question, “Our leaders, both Democrats and Republicans,” favor the policy.  That is close to the all-encompassing authoritative group.

Unnamed Authorities

Authority figures need not have names.  Unnamed experts may be invoked.  Suppose we want to ascertain the degree of support for a policy using one of the better scales, discussed in Chapter 8, such as minus-three to plus-three, where zero is neutral, minus-three is very opposed and plus-three is very favorable.  As explained in The Debate Format, ATI uses a balanced team of issue experts to develop the debate for testing a policy by gathering and constructing pro and con arguments for and against the policy.  It is often irrelevant and confusing to name the actual experts who came up with these pro and con arguments.  Usually, the amount of involvement varies among different team members.  Generic, nameless experts suffice, and their arguments may be presented in a balanced fashion like this:  [pro] “Some experts say . . .”  [con] “Other experts say . . .”

There is an unbiased neutrality to introducing the arguments by “some experts” vs. “other experts.”  Similar impartiality is achieved by “some people” vs. “other people” and is as acceptable in most questions.

Biasing Authorities Creates BIG TIME Spin

If you find a question where balanced authority figures are replaced by authorities who are described in a biased way, like this:

“Some misled/ uninformed/ well-meaning people” on one side


“knowledgeable people/ good Democrats/ good Republicans” on the other side,

you have come upon BIG TIME spin.

Unbalanced Authorities Create Spin

The role of authority figures in affecting public support for policy up to this point has largely been restricted to authorities behind alternative policy choices of large and more-or-less equal stature.  It has been useful to see the fairly fine distinctions that the public can make in this case, generally as well-considered as the distinctions of talk show producers considering who to invite on their shows.  However, if we consider a large imbalance of authorities on one side of an issue, the results are very different.  A heavy load of authorities all on one side can completely upset the outcome of the public’s policy preference.  A good example was the “two-war” policy mentioned above that has been supported by “our leaders both Republicans and Democrats” for the decade of the 1990s.  If the authorities truly line up, as here in an unbalanced way, the findings may or may not be spun, but not by improperly unbalanced authority figures.

Authorities Effects on Election Outcomes

Authority figures play a large role in our democracy at election time.  The biggest effect comes not from the top national authority figures, but from the far greater number of local people who are respected either on the issues or for making recommendations on choosing candidates.  Most important for influencing elections, these local authority figures are trusted by those people who know them and have a personal relationship with them.  The personal relationships of hundreds of thousands of local authority figures outweigh the impact of authorities’ with nationally recognized expertise.

How a President Can Become the Top Authority on Any Issue

George W. Bush found himself in the office of president somewhat lacking in experience and credible expertise on national issues.  He had a dilemma.  How was he going to be thought of as the leader he claimed to be unless he was also the top authority figure for the pressing issues?

All presidents are confronted with tough issues continuously.  In his first few months in office, Bush confined his statements to generalities and guiding principles that, lacking specifics, often left a trail of confusion as to what really were his policy positions going to turn out to be.  Bush quickly set up a team consisting of authority figures in their own right: Vice President Dick Cheney, Cabinet officers and agency heads who interpreted Bush’s statements for the media.

The Cheney team became the spokesmen who clarified and specified what Bush policies were, normally with a disclaimer that they were only giving their own personal interpretations or opinions.  However, the words that team members were permitted to use were chosen by a special task force whose output was approved by Bush.  This allowed Bush the flexibility to test ideas and to reach an understanding of the best way to present his proposals and initiatives, when in fact the input and preliminary culling and shaping of ideas was primarily done by the coordinated team and the task force.  In this way, Bush did come to be considered the authority figure by the media and most of the public on any issue at least for as long as this approach worked.

Since at any time team members’ opinions of what Bush planned to do could be dismissed with no onus falling upon himself, whenever Bush chose to do so, team member opinions were indeed over-ridden.  Bush changed course risk-free, while the brunt fell upon subordinates.  When all team and task force members have been shielded by the pretence that their spontaneous utterances were their own, while they in fact often knew both the orchestration and the substance of Bush’s decisions, then the appropriate characterization of Bush policy needs to be considered something stronger than “misleading.”  The word lying serves well.  It is stronger than “self-serving interpretation” which is spin.  An alternative title for this book was “Spot the Spin – and the Lie.”

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