Chapter 3: Spin — From the Media — Via the Media

Ethical Markets Ethical Markets Originals

Chapter 3: Spin  — From the Media  — Via the Media
By Alan F. Kay, PhD
© 2004, (fair use with attribution and copy to author)
June 25, 2004

News comes through the media.  Whether it’s TV or print, the media mediates.  It hovers over all the regular news sources and stands between the people and news information.  If something is not covered by the media, then it is not news. If it wasn’t on TV, it did not happen.

The Internet, where millions of people can publish news to the world, to some degree is breaking the media monopoly.  But news content coming over the Internet is almost entirely provided by the mainstream media courtesy of Microsoft.  Exceptions are a few citizen’s organizations, like MoveOn and TrueMajority, that despite established media indifference and rejection can fund candidates like Howard Dean or flood Congress with several hundred thousand emails.

Before we look at the spin put on polls, we have to see how spin is put on all news and current affairs content by the decision-makers of the media using media channels.  There are a large number of different ways to put spin on poll findings.  In this book, we’ll look at some that are easy to understand and unique and ingenious.  Most of them, however, are similar to the ways that the media put spin on any subject they touch.

If you’re a typical American, you’ve already put in over 10,000 hours in front of our most important source of news: TV.  That’s over a year’s time for an all-out 24x7x52 marathon.  For the younger crowd, the number is even higher if you include time in front of on-line TV monitors.  Most of us have learned a lot from the experience.  Even if most of those hours strictly speaking are not in front of news or current affairs, directly or indirectly, a lot of it is.  Whether your favorite news media comes via print, TV, or the Internet, you probably know a lot about media spin and perhaps many of the things you’ll read here.

Much of the spinning hides behind the double protection of the First Amendment: freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  “Freedom of the press is only for those who own one,” is just as accurate an aphorism today as it was 50 years ago when fast distribution of high-circulation news required giant lithographic presses.  Today, owning your own mainstream media is only for a handful of moguls.  A TV channel costs more than $100 million, and even buying a small local station is for the very upscale and entrepreneurial.  Want to buy a major newspaper?  Better be ready to shell out over a billion. With very few exceptions, the owners of media outlets use them to promote their own ideas.  Some are blatantly, ideologically biased and totally devoted to their own viewpoints.   Some allow and indeed encourage more balanced viewpoints.  Large audience and mainstream media usually seem balanced.  Much of that may be an illusion.

How come?  Much of the content picked up and carried in mainstream media has been designed and built around the ways and means of spinning stories.  Much of it comes off of PR Newswire or other release services whereby the key participants in a news story — the newsmakers or corporate management — tell the story their way. Or it comes from government, as when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services put out Video News Releases (VNRs) on the 2003 Medicare Act that were “spun” in ways so blatant that they were legally challenged as using government funds for political propaganda.  The bias is there, and usually subtle.

Market polls and focus group research, which are much more numerous than political polls, contain highly proprietary information and are never released.  So, they are not noticed.

To some degree, the findings of market research can be deduced by anyone who takes a crack at “reverse engineering” one of the zillion print ads or daily broadcast commercials to uncover the message behind the “message from the sponsor.”

It might intrigue you on a dull day to try “reverse engineering” by asking yourself what research findings led the corporate sponsor to create some ad. You’ll learn that the sponsor’s message inserted into your brain is not fair, balanced and truthful; but you already know that. Most market research seems so inconsequential and is so invisible to consumers that caring about the quality of the research seems irrelevant. Therefore, such questioning never occurs, even by investigative media.  But the very opposite can be true, as this story illustrates.

A Case History.

In a major story, Business Week (Oct. 6, 2003, p. 102) introduced its readers to the unique role of Wal-Mart in the economy:

“With $245 billion in 2002 revenues, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the world’s largest company, three times the size of No. 2 retailer, France’s Carrefour. Every week, 138 million shoppers visit Wal-Mart’s 4,750 stores; last year, 82% of American households made at least one purchase at Wal-Mart.”

Many people know that the big-box stores, like Wal-Mart, Target, and K-Mart, planted themselves along highways in lower cost, often unincorporated, jurisdictions just beyond high-tax urban centers, and bought the allegiance of shoppers by low-price loss leaders. Wal-Mart got far ahead of the others by two strategies:

(1) Stocking products of ever-larger sectors of retailing. Wal-Mart aggregated in one giant big-box and in ever-expanding varieties: clothing, sporting goods, books, magazines, CDs, Videos, DVDs, appliances, hardware, garden, construction, electrical, electronic, optical, plumbing, machinery, food, groceries, meals, drugs and pharmaceuticals, until finally now there is little most consumers seek that is not offered at Wal-Mart.

(2) Convincing America that buying at Wal-Mart saves big money. From the beginning, Wal-Mart pressed its suppliers — even those in China — to cut the cost to the consumer by re-designing products to give good value; generally going downscale and toward products not necessarily long-lived.

Over the years, Wal-Mart’s market share grew enormously. In many high volume items and well-known brands, Wal-Mart’s market share is now in the range of 20% to 30% and could reach 50% by the end of the decade.

Suppliers have learned that they could be cut out of a large part of their business if they did not meet Wal-Mart’s cost-cutting demands. Suppliers have worked hard at cost cutting or were promptly dropped.

Inside a giant Wal-Mart store, as far as the eye can see, are hundreds of signs proclaiming amazing will-not-be-undersold prices, etc.  Can that tell us that Wal-Mart is cost-saving?  Hardly.

Wal-Mart has unique challenges brought about by its increasing control of almost all retail sectors: (a) likely unavailability of labor and executives to fulfill its big expansion plans, (b) attacks by unions and local authorities for forcing downscale wages down further and destroying the livelihoods of neighborhood retail workers and owners, (c) the use of promotional prices to invade each new sector and after becoming the dominant consumer supplier in that sector, replacing the no longer needed promotional prices with profitable, higher prices, and (d) the Wal-Mart culture that limits the variety of informational, entertainment, and educational items because of rural, religious and cultural biases of most of its executive management.

Wal-Mart seems on track to become the monopolistic retail supplier of nearly every product consumers require.  If solid evidence can be shown to Congress and the administration that, all things considered, Wal-Mart clearly provides consumers what they want at the lowest cost, it seems likely that Wal-Mart is safe from derailing by any Department of Justice monopolistic charges.  Two studies presenting impressive evidence that Wal-Mart benefits both its customers and the customers of its competitors, forced to lower their own prices to stay alive, are: (1) a UBS-Warburg investment bank study that showed that grocery prices are on average 14% lower where Wal-Mart competes, and (2) a New England Consulting estimate that Wal-Mart saved its U.S. customers $20 billion in 2002, and almost $80 billion more from price cuts other retailers had to make to compete.  A complete, accurate study of Wal-Mart’s on-going financial impact would require the knowledge of every purchase of every item and its purchase price by every American minute-to-minute — clearly impossible.  Useful studies might be produced using simplifying assumptions, but could any studies, whether investigative media or government funded, stand up and effectively challenge Wal-Mart?  Whatever it takes of Wal-Mart profits in billions could and would be expended to finance, as necessary, an avalanche of studies examining the issues from many different viewpoints, all showing that Wal-Mart continues to lower all consumer prices.  Of course, no one could effectively challenge Wal-Mart.

This huge market research effort is not like the typical print ad or broadcast commercial, so inconsequential and so invisible to consumers that it is ignored and irrelevant.  All the mightiest companies in the global economy have a similar potential to mislead the public and the government, and many have broken or cleverly evaded U.S. accounting and legal rules.

Forget raising the poll vaulting bar. The market research bar is so low, a limbo dancer couldn’t get under it.

In our further description of spin, TV and print need to be considered separately.

Start With TV

Panel shows often appear, at least nominally, fairly well balanced ideologically, but seldom balanced by gender or ethnicity.  Often the ideological extremes are represented by the “two sides” of an argument.  This is the first spin.  Most issues have more than two sides, as we will consider in Chapter 4, where we see the importance of a wide range of policy choices as a key factor in dampening the spinning of poll questions.

There is also a deficiency of “ordinary” people on a panel.  In a show about prison issues or poverty, how often have you seen an articulate ex-prisoner or homeless person on a panel?  There are a lot of them, but their views are too far outside the idea-bandwidth acceptable to the mainstream – to coin a phrase in this bandwidth-worshipping age.

The moderator, host, or facilitator, whatever the staff person working for the sponsor is called, has a personality, and often shares the sponsor’s or advertiser’s bias.  But often the bias comes from the fact that that nice expert from the what’sitsname organization was not mentioned as being a six-figure lobbyist for the trade association or union with a direct stake in the issue.  Nor was it said that another panelist was a lifetime-member of a special interest organization defending the rights of horned owls, Republicans, rifle-owners or Democrats. (How is that for a balanced list?)

One simple question would be so helpful, if asked of each panelist before letting them talk: “Tell the audience, Will, or Jill or whatever, where do you get your money from?  Are you paid for being here?”  The role of money not only dominates politics but media too.  The responses will sometimes be a revelation to audiences.

Have you noticed that nobody is ever converted on a talk show from their original ideas to a different view of the subject?  This is certainly true of the conflict-oriented shows, such as CNN’s “Cross-Fire,” or the more polite formats that carry ideologues of opposite persuasion.  How is it possible that there is no mind-change, ever?  Were those people born believing what they are saying on today’s show?  If not, why do we never catch a pundit at the precise moment of mind change?

This leads to more oddities.  Since no one ever seems able to convince another, what then is the object of the “debate”?  Why should anyone in the public audience ever be convinced of anything new?  Has any “Talk-Back Live” host asked, “How many of you in the studio (or home) audience are considering changing your mind about this issue because of what you have heard on the show so far?”  By the way, that kind of question is key to what is called the debate-format question series in polling, where in Chapter 4, we will find out when and why people do or do not change their minds. The results are astoundingly revealing of what kind of pro and con arguments have or do not have an impact on the public’s support for a particular policy, legislation, regulation or government action.

In panel shows with greater civility, discussants present their individual point of view.  During the show, as all viewpoints emerge, none ever moves closer to the others.  Politeness and civility is achieved by a friendly lead-in for a new speaker that goes like this, “Tom has a point there, but what I think is ___”, and what follows makes no point agreeing with Tom’s, and neither Tom nor any of the other panelists are mentioned again by the speaker.

Bias comes mostly from omission, much more so than from what you do see or hear.  Omission is the preferred means of pushing a bias because, well, because people notice omission less.  It is hard to notice nothing when it is buried in a massive quantity of information.  For example, those experts who weren’t put on the show because their ideas are outside the narrow band of acceptable views that the mainstream tolerates for the issue are unrecognized and unnoticed omissions.

An even more grievous form of omission has evolved out of an old tradition of dividing knowledge into disciplines: economics, sociology, business, anthropology, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, environment, law, medicine, etc. – a very long list, now supplemented by many new disciplines: computers, telecommunications, high-tech warfare, molecular biology, genetic engineering, criminology, nanotechnology, robotics, forensics, etc., and most of these are divided into sub-disciplines, such as the 75 different branches of engineering: electrical, chemical, civil, etc.  Business and political leaders turn to experts in one of these fields as problems arise.

The committees in Congress, for example, with jurisdiction for initial review of all legislative proposals, themselves share issue areas so finely divided that on any problem that has impact in more than one committee or subcommittee’s area, there is competition for control between them.  This usually leads to substandard legislative proposals developed without any cross-disciplinary input and, all too often, defective legislation.  This one goes way beyond what is ordinarily considered spin, too, but in fact can be considered the spin that each discipline or profession puts on its assumptions about the world.

All of this has grown slowly as knowledge has built up with the growth of research, and the burgeoning of university and post-grad degree holders in the professions.  As a consequence, there are experts in hundreds, even thousands, of different fields and subfields which – following in the footsteps of business, educational and political leaders – the media now use whenever an unusual, interesting news development needs that kind of expertise on the air or in a print story.

Still, when a national problem is considered as being in a specific domain, for example economics, show producers put together panels of economists, usually covering the traditional “two sides” of the issue.  In today’s world, the two sides are generally “conservative” and “liberal.”  When they are covering some subject that is pretty broad for economics, like the best form of a tax cut, the expert participants readily make statements like, “I would make a smaller cut now, about $300 billion less than the president is asking for, and shore up social security with that saving.”  It all makes perfect sense as long as the discussion is confined to economists and the outcomes are the things that, at best, economists are knowledgeable about.

But what is omitted from the panel are experts in fields that have learned a lot, particularly in the last 30 years, about what people need and want, such as sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, biologists, historians, ecologists, and others who might immediately be able to suggest ways that small portions of that $300 billion savings could be used that everybody – except economists – would agree are much more desirable than an economist’s suggestion.  “Generalists” are required who have an interest in all fields, which is precisely what the general public is.  How can you believe that?  Well, try thinking about, “the total knowledge and expertise of the public” —  OR – think,” all of us are smarter than any one of us.”  The best that can be done by media producers, other than conducting high-quality public-interest polling, is to represent “generalists” by experts in the complementary fields, sociologists, anthropologists, scientists, etc. This omission is very broad, goes way beyond simple spin, and is simply not recognized by panel or issue talk show producers and hosts.

Advertisers seldom place commercials on programs they perceive as unfriendly.

They simply prefer not to have their commercials aired on shows that their customers are less likely tuned in to – perhaps because the show’s content is unsettling or incompatible with the commercials’ mood and sales theme.  Then, there is the distraction of eight minutes of commercials distributed inside of and supported by 22 minutes of content in each half hour.  This commercial “necessity” produces short content time segments of at most five or 10 minutes.  What happens?  Just at the most interesting moment, it’s “TIME’S UP.”  The moderator has to sign off for the commercial.

Mainstream TV commentators and reporters are hired for their TV “presence.”  They are outgoing, affable, calm, clear, smiling, fast-talking and cool when forced to handle and recover from little glitches.  They have the on-camera traits that TV prizes, and are not selected for deep understanding, experience or knowledge of the subjects on which the script has them speak.  They are almost invariably deficient in the subject matter.  (What do you expect – all of those personality traits plus a PhD in rocket science, too?)  They are unable to ask the hard and penetrating questions.  Since this is true of all of the staff talking heads — read “wannabee stars” — behind the microphones and cameras, they never even learn that there are hard and unasked questions. Alternatively, there are some anti-intellectual shock jockeys who play up one-sided and shallow views on issues, serving the public no better.

Now Turn to Print.  

Here the spin is more deliberate.  Prominence in layout — placement vis-à-vis front or section lead page, titles, box sidebars, headlines, font size, and column inches — tells us which stories the publisher wants us to think are the important ones and which to ignore.  “Ignore” is not a strong enough word.  They are really seeking that you don’t remember the item at all; don’t think about it — ever again.

A recent development in mainstream newspapers and magazines follows a practice long at the heart of commercial TV.  Publishers increasingly sell multi-page advertising section inserts, thought of as “news supplements,” to industry groups, foreign countries, trade associations and wealthy organizations.  These inserts get attention and perhaps greater readership from the public for several reasons.  They are carefully designed not to have the look and feel of traditional advertising.  The ads they do carry are “newsy,” built around and compatible with the content of well-written and interesting articles and editorials prepared by the insert sponsors.  Major, trusted publications, including the Washington Post, TIME, Newsweek, Business Week, and others regularly run such lucrative “advertorials.” In the case of public interest organization sponsors, who often favor placing full page statements in the New York Times and Washington Post covering topics like education and health care, they frequently have more salient and important information than can be found in the rest of the publication.

Sometimes a news editor wants to make a story appear inclusive and balanced that will be a public relations problem for a corporation that is a current or a future potential advertiser in the paper.  The story could deservedly place the company in a bad light.  The editor, working easily with layout, solves the problem by placing the story to minimize notice and impact.  Perhaps in a low-circulation edition, perhaps given one-column inch in the living arts section, perhaps put on page 12 with an 8-point head, but never with a big headline on page one that the story itself justifies.  Mr. Editor, are you still looking for another way to cover a story that will have absolutely zero impact?  Then, just send in the boring reporter, or if the only reporter available is competent and fairly conscientious, then edit the juice out of her story and cut it down to six lines.

All of this was much easier for magazines of the 1999-2000 bubble era, the darlings Wired, Red Herring, and Upside that became so fat with advertising, stories and columns that up to 600-page issues were the norm.  Broader, capitalism-booster magazines like Fortune and The Economist can more easily bury out-of-sight undesired stories that today’s capitalists prefer to ignore without gutting the story itself.  Such articles primarily are about the trashing of the environment where environmentalists’ viewpoints are minimized, or stories about how social goods could be provided if capitalism could be reformed and updated.   For example, 99% of the coverage of the expansion of wireless handheld communications devices is in euphoric, multi-level technical, economic and business stories, while the coverage of the public health hazards following from the proliferation of outdoor microwave radiation, cell phone towers and devices held a few inches from the brain is less than 1% of the total.  The euphoric 99% makes no mention of health hazards.  Few funds are available to research such health issues.  They are buried and forgotten.

The most insidious and little known omission arises from the drive of on-camera TV types or hot-shot reporters, syndicated columnists, and new multi-media types who’ll do anything, alright almost anything, to make it BIG.  At the start of their careers they absorb the unwritten rules for getting ahead.  No. 1 rule: handle the advertisers, potential advertisers and officials-in-control carefully.  These control-oriented folks are pretty much all affiliated or employed by large corporations and bureaucracies.

The media types learn to make few and short, preferably, “no comments” on commercials or print ads, even when occasionally they might honestly have something favorable to say.  Why – if it is favorable?  Because if a media type does say something favorable a couple of times, then NOT saying anything becomes a silent condemnation implying something negative is brewing.  The simple rule for the media personality is “just keep away from it.”

That is called self-censorship.  And it is very effective.  In totalitarian dictatorships, the most effective censorship comes from self-censorship by some 99+% of authors, editors, reporters and anchors that just want to get ahead.  All that the agents of the state have to do is to make a dramatic example of one or two that go too far over the line, perhaps by ostracism or jail-time.  In the United States at the start of the 21st Century, the same forces and reactions are basically present even in our democracy.  No one now is shipped to the gulag. (Guantanamo, anyone?)  Still, criticism of owners and advertisers is muted, often non-existent, because of self-censorship.

A few exceptions are allowed.  One is curmudgeon Andy Rooney of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” who specializes in merciless criticism of the inconvenience and irritation visited upon all of us by the powers-that-be.  But Andy confines his objects of scorn to readily visible, lowest-common-denominator defects of products and services, and to overblown marketing hype; keeps away from intellectually challenging situations; and sprinkles his comments with amusing, ironic twists.  Speaking his mind, he is a surrogate for the rest of us who would like to be able to give a national audience a piece of our minds, too.  Andy is obviously much happier after unloading and this helps fulfill his surrogate role well, since we imagine that in his shoes we, too, would be happy.  We enjoy sharing his joy.  Then there are comedians, Jon Stewart and others, who in the old tradition of the jester, can say the truth as long as it is mixed in with exaggeration and distortion or the trashing of irrelevant subjects, too.

In the United States, there is a ubiquitous form of spin now spreading world-wide via the globalization of the media: consumerism.  No serious talk is permitted in or via the media on reducing consumption and not buying.  This creeping, commercial self-censorship also is evident in the ownership structures that force most U.S. media to be profit-driven.  Even political candidates who used to be guaranteed free time now pay high rates to buy ads.  Nowhere in TV, radio, or print media are there mentions that the Fairness Doctrine provisions of the Federal Communications Commission was lobbied off the books by the National Association of Broadcasters during the Reagan administration, or that the “equal time” provision, giving political candidates free air-time access to voters, came under attack by special interests and was repealed in 1979.  Today, Americans seem to have forgotten that the public owns the airwaves.

When polling is not done consistently on the same basis, erroneous and confusing conclusions emerge. Business Week (6/24/02, 338) compared the amount of the U.S. public’s trust in corporations, in the wake of major scandals hammering U.S. stock markets. The comparison was based on a question asked five times in the preceding two and a half years. You might expect the Business Week surveys to show willingness to invest would drop along with trust, but they did not. In fact, when asked in June 2002, for the first time a majority said their investment policies would not change.

How come? The questions were asked of investors only! Those dropping out of investments were not allowed into the survey, and every one of them would say their investments had dropped, not stayed the same. If they had been included in a random sample, the balance would have slipped significantly toward decreasing willingness to invest. The sample, biased by leaving out those no longer investing, created the erroneous result. And the spin goes on.

What about facts; how do the media handle them?  Facts must be treated factually with respect, unless, of course, a little context is used to cast doubt on their factual status.  It is simple to do that.  Ankara is the capital of Turkey – a fact.  Want to cast doubt?  Say, “Ankara, the so-called capital of Turkey;” or say, “For some reason, almost nobody knows that Ankara is the capital of Turkey” (implication: maybe it is being shifted to Istanbul).  When the fact is so clearly either a fact or not, these implications are a joke, yet sometimes powerfully effective.  Or an announcer says, “There was a record low temperature at International Falls yesterday,” adding with a laugh, “so much for global warming, ha, ha.”  Or a paraphrase of President George W. Bush’s statement to Congress about how logical (if you still believe in Skinner’s failed behaviorist theories) it is to improve education by teaching how to pass tests, “If the required school tests are properly designed, they will cover just what ‘we’ (meaning, but not saying, ‘top leaders’) want students to learn.  That’s the definition of properly designed.  Teaching students to pass the tests is exactly what good teachers will and should do.  It’s as simple as that.”

A poll result (such as “48% said “yes”) is a fact, or will be presented as a fact.  The statement that is made that presents the piece of poll data can always be made factual by an appropriate context, even if, and especially if, it comes from a dubious poll.  It should not be presented as a fact of dubious value, which is usually the way a poll question result on its own is presented.  The only way a current news-reader or pundit can present a poll result with the underlying message that “this one is to be believed” is to say that the finding has been found “by all the polls.”

Any single poll result can be mentioned as if it were an opinion, “You have your poll result and I have mine.”  For pundit purposes, one man’s poll is as good as another’s.  So no poll result can be treated as being very significant.  Even before any spin is considered by anybody, the question stands: is it worth trying to put spin on a baseball pitch if the ball is going to hit the ground far from the strike zone.  It’s a balk or a wild pitch.  No spin is necessary.  Spin or no spin doesn’t matter.  No one is paying attention.

We only get to put a spin on poll results when there is a serious effort to make the poll result widely known and high impact.  That, as we shall see, happens frequently.

An Example.

A public-interest polling organization (PIPA, the Program on International Policy Attitudes, and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland) in a survey “Americans on terrorism: Two Years After 9/11” asked a series of questions on the Patriot Act the same week as a Gallup poll showed 69% of Americans believe the USA Patriot Act is “about right” or does not go “far enough” in restricting people’s civil liberties in order to fight terrorism.”  The wording of the Gallup question characterizes the Act as making it “easier for the federal government to get information on suspected terrorists through court-ordered wiretaps and searches” — language implying that the Act’s provisions are benign, fair and routine.

The PIPA poll introduces the Patriot Act as removing “certain limitations on the government’s ability to monitor and detain individuals,” a fair and balanced statement with no hint of bias, unlike the Gallup introduction.  The PIPA poll has these findings:

75% say “have” to the question, “Is it your impression that American citizens ‘have’ or ‘have not’ been detained by the U.S. under suspicion of being involved with a terrorist group?”

74% say yes to, “If American citizens are detained by the US under suspicion of being involved with a terrorist group, is it your impression that they have the right to meet with a lawyer in their defense?”

If the preceding question is enlarged to “should have the right,” support goes up to 80%.

66% say they are somewhat or very “concerned that removing limitations on the government’s ability to monitor and detain individuals may, in some cases, lead the government to go too far.”  This is roughly the opposite of the Gallup finding.

Gallup is a commercial pollster, aiming to please its client by finding that most people accept restricted civil liberties to fight terrorism.  (A good guess is that Gallup’s client is in, or a supporter of, the current Bush administration.)

Another PIPA Poll Example

From the best U.S. intelligence reports available in 2003, in August-October, PIPA determined that:

o  The Iraq-al Qaeda relationship before the war was slim,

o  Saddam Hussein was not involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,

o  Weapons of mass destruction had not been found in Iraq during or after the war,

o  Chemical and biological weapons had not been used by Iraq in the war.

PIPA polls showed significant numbers of the public believed that U.S. intelligence showed the opposite:

o  The Iraq-al Qaeda relationshp was close (48%),

o  Saddam Hussein personally was likely involved in the Sept. 11 attacks (69%),

o  Weapons of mass destruction had been found (22%), and

o  Chemical and biological weapons had been used in the war (20%),

and that these misperceptions were significantly linked to the support for starting the war as well as to where people get most of their news.  Of those with one or more misperceptions, getting most of their news from Fox were 80%, CBS 71%, ABC 61%, NBC 55%, CNN 55%, print media 55%, and PBS-NPR 23%.

Why should we trust PIPA, a public-interest pollster, more than a Gallup or a Fox?

Credibility of PIPA and Public-Interest Polling

As a matter of full disclosure I must declare that I, along with four other prominent pro-bono pollsters, had a hand in designing questions for Steven Kull, the principal investigator for the PIPA survey.   Four of Kull’s highly regarded people had designed the questionnaire and wrote the analysis.  The survey was funded by grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Ford Foundation.

But there is still more to it.  I am one of the 11 members of the PIPA Board of Advisors that includes my ATI (Americans Talk Issues) colleague of 16 years, Fred Steeper, Republican pollster for the two Presidents George Bush during both their campaigns and their presidencies.  When Steeper polls for the president or any other Republican official, he does what commercial pollsters do.  He uncovers how to present the policies, regulations, legislation, and actions that his client favors, so that the public in general, and the client’s constituencies in particular, will be most satisfied.  When he works on non-profit public-interest surveys, after 16years of hands-on experience, he knows the objective is to find government actions that most satisfy the general public when the issue and polling experts designing the survey are required to seek and offer response choices from among  a wide range of possibilities, representing not only Democrat and Republican favorites, but also any idea that has anything going for it.  The choices must be carefully phrased to be clear, fair, accurate and collectively balanced.

A poll doing all of that, on almost any governance issue, uncovers entirely different public opinion than commercial pollsters find polling on the same issue.  Publicly released commercial polls still far outnumber public-interest polls, so that the public seldom gets a glimpse of that great difference.

Whose findings are more reliable, a PIPA or a Gallup or Fox?  Having used “fair and balanced” to describe public-interest poll questions for many years before Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News, thus putting the “fair and balanced” phrase in the public domain, I feel free to answer the question of who is more reliable with a remark borrowed from Fox News, “We report, you decide.”  I am fully justified in supporting the reliability and encouraging the dissemination of PIPA’s findings that percentages of Fox News viewers had misperceptions on major national issues far larger than those who get most of their news from other standard sources.

A Further Example – Spin from the New York Times

We don’t want to display the stupidity of just right wing and centrist media.  Let’s look at a good example of the backwardness and obtuseness of the New York Times.  On  Aug. 15, 1997, the lead editorial, lead sentence, of the Times gave credit to Bill Richardson, the U.S. representative at the United Nations, for a so-labeled “ingenious” proposal to remedy an old UN problem, the frequent hobbling and ineffectiveness of the Security Council, the only UN entity authorized by the UN Charter to take military action. The Security Council has five permanent members that are unrepresentative of most of the world and any one of them can veto any action. The idea of increasing the number of new permanent members had been discussed within the international agencies and studied by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for years. Richardson’s ingenious proposal was to add five more permanent members. Richardson would not say whether these new members would also have the veto.

Three years earlier, I and my colleagues at ATI had conducted in the United States many surveys on UN issues, all made available to the news media. We found that:

Adding to the Security Council new permanent members “that have become important or represent larger developing nations, such as . . . . [five countries mentioned]” was favored by 80% of the public and strongly favored by 42%.

An 81% majority favored a reasonable increase in UN dues payments from new permanent members. Only 27% favored admission of new permanent members with the veto right, 65% opposed.

So the Times lead editorial considered a proposal ingenious that had been favored by 80% of the U.S. public three years earlier. Further, Richardson was relegated to being one among only 8% of the public who did not answer whether new permanent members should have the veto. NGOs and the U.S. people understood the value of these proposals long before the Times found them ingenious.

The editors of mainstream news media to this day have not recognized that many of the civil society organizations, the NGOs that represent the people, are out in front in understanding where the world is and should be going. Did the United States pay a price for the obtuseness of the mainstream media? Yes, it did. The people were not informed of increasing Soviet weakness and the rise of civil society there, and in Eastern Europe and South Africa, from 1980 onward. The ending of the Cold War to the vast majority of the people (who only heard or saw mainstream news) appeared to happen mysteriously during 1989.

Perpetual Spinning of the Most Important News by Mainstream Media


Does the obtuseness still go on?  Yes, it does. Considering problems produced by “rogue dictators,” the mainstream news media and special interest pollsters see solutions one of two ways, either diplomatic efforts or military intervention.  Little else gets serious consideration.  The efforts of NGOs seem beyond the ability of media to handle. Perhaps, as explained by Hazel Henderson in “Building a Win-Win World” (1996), slow-motion good news does not fit into a news media treatable category.  As a result, NGO efforts, seldom noticed by the media, are little understood by the public. Remarkably, this is independently confirmed by a poll question asked just after the revolutions of 1989, by Market Strategies Inc, pollsters for President George H.W. Bush: “Some people have commented that in places like Eastern Europe and South Africa the people WITHOUT the guns are winning. Can you understand what they mean by that?” Yes, 53% No, 44%.

The U.S. public was so kept in the dark by mainstream media that almost half did not even understand the question. But look what happened when the follow-up question was asked of the majority that said “Yes:”

“Do you agree or disagree with the comment that the people WITHOUT the guns are winning?” A whopping 82% agreed. Media moguls, anchors, editors, and reporters don’t understand things that the public does.

We are paying the price for it again. President George W. Bush agreed on Sept. 9, 2002, to some diplomatic initiatives to be undertaken before the United States were to intervene militarily in Iraq (with 68% of U.S. public approval). The mainstream U.S. media still is mistrustful or ignorant of the potential efficacy of a variety of forms of conflict resolution, and so never effectively makes clear why and how the people without the guns can and do win. So, the Iraq war is the latest price, but again and again, mainstream media control us and it’s off to war we go.

o oo ooo oooo ooooo oooo ooo oo o

Note: Much of this chapter was developed from personal interviews with futurist Hazel Henderson, a long-time media analyst (see her Building a Win-Win World, Chapter 5, “Government by Mediocracy” (1996).

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