Every semester when I teach my students about the media, I present them with the neglected history of American investigative journalism. I tell them about Ida B. Wells, who documented lynchings across the South in the late 1800s. I tell them about the muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, and Lincoln Steffens, who documented and exposed inhumane working conditions and the corrupt collusion between business magnates and politicians during the Progressive Era.
I introduce them to George Seldes and I.F. Stone and Seymour Hersch before capping off the semester with a showing of All The President’s Men, during which two dogged journalists bring down an entire administration. I even show them a video of conservative activist James O’Keefe as he demonstrates how simple it is to vote on someone else’s behalf — even the attorney general of the United States.
I do this to remind them of a durable and venerable tradition of intrepid reporting in this country and to convince them that indeed a single person can make a difference — a single article or book can alter the public’s consciousness and lead to new discussions and legislation.This lesson is designed as a kind of stealth inoculation: a lesson that is motivated out a of a sense of frustration and despair regarding the current state of journalism in this country — a lesson that is meant to suggest that things have not always been this way, and that we can demand more from this noble profession.
Others have commented on how many of our political media outlets traffic in sensationalism. Michael Austin wrote an excellent article on the manufacturing of outrage and the deliberate abuse of hyperbolic language, story selection, and partisan framing in order to generate extreme emotional responses — and higher ratings. Indeed, this is journalism — if we can call it that — at its worst.
But even when professional journalism is at its most serious, it is a travesty, especially when it takes the form of “public opinion journalism.”
It is now considered responsible journalism to lead a story with a headline that begins, “Latest Poll Finds…” The video above features Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director and a ubiquitous panelist on NBC and MSNBC). Todd is the poster boy of public opinion journalism.
What is scandalous is the way this species of journalism corrupts our political dialogue. It is now considered perfectly normal and insightful to ask a thousand Americans what their “approval rating” is of the president or other political actors or groups. The poll mentioned in the video includes a question that reaches a new low: “Can the president lead and get the job done?”
This strikes me as slightly more insipid than the fatuous inquiry: “Do you think the country is headed in the right direction?”
Readers must ask themselves, are these the best questions that can be asked to begin conversations about complex political matters? Are these the kinds of questions pollsters should be asking intelligent, responsible, and thoughtful adults?
Notice the hasty connections that Chuck Todd draws when he invokes the president’s dropping approval numbers on foreign policy; he simply spits out proper nouns that are currently charged with negative emotions: “Syria, then you have the crisis in Ukraine, then you have the situation with the Bergdahl trade, then we can talk about the Iranian negotiations,” and so on.
Completely absent here is any kind of nuance or any attempt at understanding to what degree the president is able to shape events in these places.
This kind of oversimplification of people’s emotions and the regurgitation of people’s binary responses to complex matters comes at a cost. For instance, an ABC News/Washington Post poll from 2013 found that while 52 percent of those surveyed opposed the Affordable Care Act, more (62%) felt they did not have enough information about the law.
A poll from the same year by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that there still exists much misinformation about some of the basic provisions of the law, including 57 percent who believe that the law opened up a public option, and 40 percent who believe that it created “death panels” that give the government the authority to make end-of-life decisions for recipients of Medicare.
In a complete abdication of journalistic accountability, Chuck Todd, speaking on the issue of misunderstanding of the health care law, blamed the president and the Democrats for not successfully “selling” the law to the public rather than acknowledging that it is the responsibility of the media — which instead habitually and lazily assess the evolving popularity or “approval” of the law — to accurately represent the law’s contents.
But it gets worse: not only does public opinion journalism displace real journalism, its focus on image, popularity, and “optics” debases our political discourse and turns the media and its leading figures into political arms for both parties.
During what ought to have been a serious and analytical discussion of Obama’s foreign policy during his appearance on Meet the Press on August 10, 2014, Chuck Todd called the president’s foreign policy “poll perfect” to describe the way the president has tried to appease the public’s (alleged) reluctance to intervene militarily abroad.
Political leaders have learned how to manipulate the media and its penchant for tracking popularity for their short-term benefit, and, after enough time, viewers have come to see every politician’s utterance as calculated to have precisely this effect.
"With the media focused on image and the 'impact' of politicians’ statements and actions rather than on their substance, viewers become wary and cynical. "
As the late Christopher Hitchens said of this journalistic practice, opinion poll journalism “completely economizes on thought, on work, on reflection, on going out and talking to people. It’s all done; it does itself. It doesn’t require any effort, any thinking, or any real research.”
These words come to mind when I watch Chuck Todd and other talking heads and begin to imagine who should replace them in their seats: I think about investigative journalists like those who work for Vice News and risk their lives to show people what life is like in Kiev during anti-government protests or how the Islamic State overtakes a town, enforces shari’a, and indoctrinates children to hate the infidel.
I think about do-it-myself journalists like Tracie McMillan and Barbara Ehrenreich who live the life of the hungry and working poor and report on poverty in the same way that Michael Lewis and Matt Taibbi report on Wall Street’s machinations from the inside.
I think about the knowledgeable and articulate scholars and experts displaced by a rotating battalion of partisan pundits, pollsters, and political consultants and strategists who repeat the conventional wisdom, who speculate idly on partisan and personal branding campaigns and on elections dozens of months away, and who violate on a daily basis the very purpose of journalism: to report the facts, to present suppressed, neglected, or unconventional stories and ideas, and to tell people something they did not already know.
As citizens, this scandalous form of journalism is problematic enough, but for independents, it is especially troubling.
These oversimplified questions that appear on these polls are meant to set the terms of the debate: pollsters, establishment journalists, and politicians thrive on questions with binary responses (“Is the country headed in the right direction?” or “Are you better off now than you were 4 or 8 years ago?”). However, these questions wholly discourage independent or critical thought — just as the results do.
For instance, notice how, in the video above, Chuck Todd confidently concludes by stating (based on what 500 respondents have reported) that, “This is as if the public is saying, ‘hey buddy, your presidency is over. You may not believe it is, but your ability to lead and convince us that you have the right policies anymore, we’re not listening.’”
When this simplistic and ungeneralizable finding ricochets around the media, the conversation is no longer about what is or ought to be happening, but how the president or other politicians can improve their standing with the public — a kind of gossip that influential political websites, cable news shows, and even the more serious Sunday morning shows specialize in.
The best way to discourage this kind of lazy journalism is first to be aware of it; second, to boycott it (if not collectively, then personally); and finally, to collect information from a variety of sources and develop our own opinions and means of evaluating politicians and the country’s policies.
Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.
Laziness aside, one reason that opinion journalism prevails is that the news business has become more profit driven and less civic service driven. Consequently fewer investigative reporters are hired. The climate for binary opinion poll journalism is encouraged by electoral processes that favor the duopoly parties. Pollsters and pundits would have a much more difficult time seeming credible amid confusion that would be generated by an approval plus score voting system in which voters register their degree of approval/disapproval of as few or as many candidates on the ballot as they desire.
No, this country is Not headed in the right direction. No, I am not better off than I was 8 yrs. ago. This country has been taken over by a group of greedy pigs, bent on destroying it!!!!
The media is complicit in the theft of America. They and their corporate owners just tell us what they want to, and we are left to search for what's really happening ourselves. Our politicians are guilty as well, and most people don't know or don't care. Tragic.
you also seem to be saying that the housing bubble was caused by Clinton... this is also a false narrative. the housing bubble started in 2002, peaked in 2005, and was well deflated by the beginning of 2007, when the Republicans lost control of Congress, that they had from 1994, until the end of 2006, and the Democrats took over. in 2002, Bush ordered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to " make it easier" for minorities, low income, and first time home buyers... this was the beginning of the housing bubble. here is George Bush, in his own words, in 2002. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kNqQx7sjoS8 there are plenty of things I am NOT happy about with the Democrats..... the fact that they have been wimps in the face of a minority of Republicans, the fact that they did not do everything to fix the economy in the 74 days they actually had a super majority, the fact that the president gave in to us being held hostage, to keep the Bush tax cuts in place in 2010..... But when it comes to the Republicans thoroughly screwing us, I cannot allow history to be revised. Glenn, I am not blaming you personally for these false narratives - but we have to keep the story straight, and history correct. if not us independents, then who will?
Glenn.... I have been a registered American independent since 1980. while I will agree that there have been problems from both sides, you seem to be making the argument that both sides are the same... and this is a false narrative. " Exactly the same." the false narrative of equal blame to both sides... in order to minimize Republicans blame, which is far worse. I have mentioned this example before about this false narrative - when nine states are completely gerrymandered, two by Democrats, and the other seven by Republicans, they might have done the same thing, but the effect is not equal..... and attempting to make a false equality out of a ratio of 7 to 2 is a lie. what this false narrative actually says is: " since it is established that we have been doing bad things, we are going to blame the other side equally...... so that if we go down, we will take them with us". this is what right wingers are trying to do with this false equality lie. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/11/republicans-gerrymandering-house-representatives-election-chart
Couldn't disagree with you more. As an actual INDEPENDENT on here, I have to ask you what happened the first two years? You know, when The left controlled everything ???? EXACTLY. Downhill fast. And yes, we were on a downward plane when he took office. Let's not fool ourselves. Anyone with an open mind will admit that. And even Bush could have changed CLINTONS program of bad home loans, and he dropped that ball, and fumbled it a few more times, which is one of the biggest causes of the economic failure. And doesn't recent history show us that BOTH SIDES do exactly that when not in power? Outside if the Iraq mistake of thinking we could make them a democracy, and also including that, the housing failure is the thing most economists point towards as the biggest factor in the economic failure. And I'm also sure the Republicans have caused the costs for this (for most peoples) UNAFFORDABLE Health Care program to nearly triple in costs versus his original lie to the people when presenting it? Bush Jr was not a good president, at all. He wanted to avenge his fathers one regret, which was wrong. But to blame him for everything this administration has screwed up isn't justice or fair either. This site is supposed to be for independent minded people. Your opinion just looks to blame one side for BOTH MAJOR PARTIES FAILURES. Both when they are in power, or not. And they are trying to polarize this country to keep full control to themselves. BOTH parties should be disbanded and abandoned .... which will never happen with them having total control. THAT is our biggest problem. Not polls that mislead people, the media takes care of that already. But from two extremist parties that are hogging the game, and letting no one else play.
agree ..... fully. But let's look at the overwhelming majority of these ... they are paid for by one of the two sides. Example .... ABC does a poll asking people if they thing the economic crisis is past. They might even hire an independent company to do the survey .... but they control the question and the wording of the question, and the possible answers. ABC being HIGHLY liberal wants it slanted their way so the sheeple think it's legit. Fox does the same for the right side, all others for the left side .... and we're just along for the ride
You also pointed out something in your article that should worry anyone who wants reliable, honest journalism and I forgot to bring it up before. Chuck Todd, much like news personalities and anchors in other traditional news outlets, often don't take responsibility for not providing the information they need to or for providing information that is frivolous and doesn't do anything to inform the public of what they need to be informed of. Todd's response to misinformation being spread about the ACA seems to be equivalent to, "Don't shoot the messenger." The job of the media is not just to report whatever lawmakers and public officials say, or even just what a public opinion poll says, but to dig deeper and find out the truth to inform the public.
the question" is the country headed in the right direction?" is generic, and designed to receive a lot of no answers, in order to follow up with blaming our president for the direction our country is in. since the Republican Party has done its best to stand in the way of making any changes whatsoever over the last five and a half years, if the country is going in the wrong direction, is because it is in the same direction as it was when Bush was president.....
Andrew, or is it Don Quixote? You have taken on a much needed challenge. How do your students react to the lesson? Objective reporting appears to have died years ago. It now commentary or as you rightfully state, reporting others' opinion. And we are paying the price. Great Piece!
The FAIR report you link to is amazing and horrifying. http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/dont-quit-your-day-job/
I can't believe a rational person can continue watching cable news after reading it.
The media has digressed to the point of being mostly commentary and opinion as apposed to facts and truths. Instead of people making up their own mind using reported facts they let their opinion be swayed by commentators that spout what they want to hear rather than the truth. It is not about facts and the truth it is all about ratings!
We not only have media malpractice, but we also have extreme medical malpractice. What is going on with our food supply is also a true tragedy! I call it, "The Poisoning of America"!
This is a really thought-provoking article Andrew. A lot of the questions asked in surveys or polls encourage either a yes or no answer, with very little room for circumstantial responses. There's never really an opportunity to respond in depth, or at least there is no method to measure and include that in the results of polls. Maybe it's because so many politicians still run campaigns dictated by polling that much of our political discourse is binary...
Great piece! You nailed it. The 4th estate is, for the most part, in full-blown failure mode.
If I recall correctly, it was sometime in the 1970s or 1980s when at least broadcast news began to morph into infotainment. Crippling economic pressure on the printed press seems to have come a bit later with the rise of the internet. Opinion poll journalism fits that infotainment paradigm beautifully - it is easy, fast, low-cost and usually fairly mindless. Back when ABC, NBC and CBS was about all there was on the air, the entertainment divisions had to generate all the profits and the news divisions rode that revenue stream. Now, news has to make profit and apparently the only way to do that is to make it entertaining enough to keep eyeballs on the screens and operating costs low. For politics, what is entertaining journalism apparently has to be whipping up emotions and fostering partisan divides within the context of portraying reality and logic that generally fits within the confines of what the two-party system demands. Players who try to be less partisan, e.g., CNN, seem to be doing less well. Given that weakness, it is easy to see how easily the press/media was largely co-opted into being a non-trivial part of the two-party system, which IMO, is what it has devolved into.
But, all is not bleak. There seems to be a slow but sustained decline in viewership of the partisan sources. That probably reflects the decline in trust in the two parties, their politicians and the federal government. There are still some sources who can usually rise above narrow partisanship, e.g., C-Span, Economist, Financial Times, etc. And, there are some good online sources like IVN, fact checking sites and foundations who are operating in the public interest, instead of simply operating for narrower partisan, economic or ideological ends. It is impossible to know how this will play out, but my guess is that over time journalism of substance will come to displace spin/infotainment journalism as the dominant information source. It may take a generation or two, but, if all the discontent with and distrust of the two-party system is any indication, it will probably happen.
When I first took classes on journalism in high school one of the first rules I learned was when conducting an interview you need to avoid yes or no questions. Not only do you, as a journalist, want the source to elaborate, but you want them to actually talk about the subject being discussed. You want something substantive from your sources. I don't see why the same rule cannot be applied to reporting on public opinion polls, the questions of which are often broad, generalized yes or no questions that reveal nothing about whatever topic is being discussed.
My beef in this article is not merely with punditry-as-journalism, but with presenting poll results as journalism. Surely, these results might be considered "objective" (such as with "scientific polls"), but the problem is that they tell us nothing new and instead report on our own opinions rather than engaging in real education or genuine reporting.
For instance, the media is all too skilled in documenting how our "approval" of the president or the ACA has changed over time, but it is consistently failing to inform us about the law, such as its provisions or how it is affecting health care access, costs, administration, etc.
The worst is when people like Chuck Todd give commentary (as in the video above) based on poll results. How Chuck Todd is able to get himself called a journalist or be responsible for such an enterprise is the disturbing part.
My students I think appreciate this lesson in investigative journalism, and one student from Venezuela told me about a journalist who had plastic surgery in order to disguise his identity and infiltrate some jihadist organization (I can't recall if it was al-Qaeda per se).
I agree: it is appalling how the role of public intellectuals and commentators has been hijacked my corporate interests, including lobbyists and PR hacks, and it is even more sinister how this infiltration is not disclosed, such as in the cases of Stephanie Cutter and Hilary Rosen.
Unfortunately, they even turn up on Sunday talk shows too and guard the permanent consensus. I strain my patience to sit through as much as Meet the Press as possible: I simply can't sit through a panel featuring EJ Dionne, David Brooks, Andrea Mitchell, and Chuck Todd - and whichever third-string panelist they tack on. Fortunately, David Gregory is leaving: unfortunately, Chuck Todd will take his place...
I agree when you write "it is easy to see how easily the press/media was largely co-opted into being a non-trivial part of the two-party system."
There is indeed binarism built into partisan politics and opinion poll journalism.
It is a political, social, and cultural problem when citizens are treated as the equivalent of cola consumers: Pepsi or Coke? We are encouraged to think in binaries: blue-red, yes-no, good-bad, right direction-wrong direction, and never allowed to raise fundamental objections that question assumptions, premises, or the system at large. This is how you infantilize and dumb-down a population and discourage it from critical thinking and genuine debate and choice.
I also agree that there is a slow evolution going on: NBC's Meet the Press can't get things right and is now ditching Gregory, and the cable news shows are also seen as extensions of political parties (or with CNN - as rank sensationalists).
Let's rejoice for sites like IVN, where there is genuine dialogue, independence, and non-partisanship.
Good point: that's a good lesson for journalists.
As guest says above: part of it is a matter of cost. It is very affordable and easy for these outlets to conduct these polls.
More troubling is the comparison between opinion poll journalism and our current political system. The two are similar and reinforce each other. In opinion polls, we say "yes" or "no" or "right direction" or "wrong direction." In the voting booth, we do much the same thing - given our entrapment in a two-party system.
Just like the two-party system, this opinion poll journalism reinforces our binary thinking, which as Hitchens says, leads to an economization on thought, reflection, any real research, etc.