Journalism by Poll Simply Reflects Conventional Wisdom

I teach my students that the best reporters zig when everyone else
zags. They leave the panting pack behind to look to the corners of
news, to listen to voices that are ignored, such as the old, the poor,
the working stiff; to seek out experts with different opinions and
fresh rationales for them; and to visit the countless places in
America other than Capitol Hill or the brick and stone halls of state
and local power.

But turn on the TV, or turn to the web sites of the leading news
organizations in America these days and, increasingly, they allow
politics and policy by poll to rule.

Forget the fact that even the most accurate polls have outliers that
are way off the mark. Forget that these polls always have what's
called a margin of error of 3 percent of more, meaning that a 50-50
split in opinion could be 53-47 either way. Forget that polls depend
on how questions are asked and how random a random sample can is in an
era when more and more people can't be or refuse to be reached.

The media love polls -- particularly those that reinforce the
conventional wisdom that everyone will conveniently forget if and when
it is proven wrong. Nowhere these days does that seem more true than
when it comes to politics and the polling of the proverbial "angry
American" in the run-up to election 2010.

Reflecting on a couple of polls by that most poll happy of news
organization -- USA Today -- makes the point.

Today, at, you can learn that "Dems in power could be in
peril, poll says."

"WASHINGTON -- Democratic congressional candidates face a political
landscape even rockier than those in 1994 and 2006 that ended with
election upheavals that changed control of Congress, a USA
TODAY/Gallup Poll finds."

First off, this is only news if you've been living in a cave. I've
been reading this story day after day for weeks, based on poll a, poll
b, or is it poll t?

The story, in fact, trots out more polls to "prove" its polled point:

"Whatever problems the GOP risks down the road, Democrats seem headed
for disaster in the election eight weeks away:

* President Obama's approval rating is 43%; in the separate daily
Gallup Poll, it was at 46% Thursday. In the past, when a president's
rating fell below 50%, his party suffered larger setbacks in midterm
elections than if his approval was above that level."

Yet the same story notes, "A third of those polled approve of the job
congressional Republicans are doing, the same dismal rating
congressional Democrats receive."

Hmm. That's interesting. Even more interesting is another poll
published just a day before by -- That Gallup poll
reported that Americans blame Republican President George W. Bush more
than Democrat Barack Obama for the state of the U.S. economy. Here is
how that piece began:

"Nearly two years after Barack Obama was elected president, Americans
still are inclined to blame his predecessor for the nation's current
economic problems.

In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday, more than a
third of those surveyed said George W. Bush deserved a great deal of
the blame for economic woes and a third said he should get a moderate
amount of it. Not quite another third called that unfair, saying Bush
warranted not much or none of the responsibility."

So help me out here. Since Americans blame a Republican president more
than the current Democratic president for the perilous state of this
country's economy, why is it that they plan to vote overwhelmingly to
put Republicans back in power? Something doesn't seem to add up,
which is precisely when reporters need to report -- not just give the

I wonder: Are people simply expressing their frustration over the
economy in their answers to pollsters or will they really vote the way
they're saying they will today? If they don't like or trust the
Republicans -- and in fact hold President Bush more accountable for
the financial meltdown -- why would Americans after two short years of
Democratic Congressional leadership want to throw out the new party in
power and go back to the one voters apparently believe created the
mess in the first place? I know "it's the economy stupid," but that
doesn't mean Americans have to be that stupid about what got the
economy where it is.

Until someone really explores the contradictions in these numbers to
me instead of merely regurgitating the data piecemeal, I remain very
skeptical of the conventional wisdom, miserable economy and all.

Unless, of course, Democrats, demoralized by a drumbeat of bad polls
between now and the election, choose to sit the election out.

Oh. Have you heard that more American believe that Barack Obama is a
Muslim? The polls say so. Of course, it's not true, but who has the
time to figure out why they say so. That would require significant

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.