Tuesday, June 11, 2013









Today on CBS This Morning, Major Garrett reported on US President Barack Obama's latest scandal.

MAJOR GARRETT: The White House knows that this is an intelligence crisis that could become a political crisis. Now, in face of revelations about secret phone snooping and internet data mining, President Obama authorized the declassification of some information about both of the programs and he asked the Director of National Intelligence [James Clapper]  to explain with some detail the underlying legal justification for the surveillance and some of the guidelines built around that. Now many of these explanations have been defensive -- asserting what the snooping and surveillance is not. That's designed to hold the political line in Congress so the White House can assess just  how much of a political firestorm this is going to generate.  But through this all, Charlie and Norah, the White House has had to admit a politically and tactically startling truth: It conducts more surveillance than the Bush White House.

Yesterday,  Amy Davidson (The New Yorker) reviewed the basics:

 So far, the leaks have revealed that the N.S.A. is collecting records from Verizon Business (and, it emerged, from any number of other companies) for every phone call placed in the United States; that, with a program called Prism and some degree of coöperation from technology companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple, it is looking at the private data of both foreigners it targeted and—“incidentally”—Americans a degree or even two removed from them; that another program, called Boundless Informant, processed billions of pieces of domestic data each month, and many times that from abroad. We also learned that James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, flat-out lied to the Senate when he said that the N.S.A. did not “wittingly” collect any sort of data on millions of Americans. And we were reminded of how disappointing President Obama can be. These were all things the public deserved to know.

While some do journalism,  Jon Cohen (Washington Post) regurgitates, "A large majority of Americans say the federal government should focus on investigating possible terrorist threats even if personal privacy is compromised, and most support the blanket tracking of telephone records in an effort to uncover terrorist activity, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll."  Did it say that, Little Jonny?  Did you tucker yourself out typing that? That's not a story, though it has a headline and several paragraphs.  It may be an attempt, like this embarrassing column by the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, to manipulate public opinion.

The gross stupidity of the Amreican press can never be underscored enough.  A friend who was Academy Award nominated for playing an airhead never tires of telling one and all that she based her performance on reporters who had interviewed her.  Amen.  As a group, they think they know everything when they know nothing.  They've taken no polling classes but they just 'know' polling.

Monday, May 13th kicked off a week of  minor press coverage but, as minor as it was, what was also the most critical the press had ever been of US President Barack Obama and his administration.  The press almost had to do their job that week that kicked off with news that the Associated Press' phone records had been secretly seized, which was followed by the news that the IRS had been targeting political groups thought to be critical of Barack and the Benghazi e-mail dump which revealed that Victoria Nuland had argued for deletions and (this part hasn't been picked up on) that Nuland went over the heads of the other people working on the talking points to get the deletions she wanted.  (When you read the e-mails, you note quickly that twice Nuland objects and makes clear that not only is she objecting, but oops, she already objected higher -- like a little tattle tale -- and those communications have not been released.)

In the wake of all of that?  Enter the gas bags.

That week of the press semi doing their job ended on May 17th.  Let's check in with the first hour of The Diane Rehm Show (NPR) that morning (the 'domestic' 'news' hour).

Diane Rehm:   I wonder how people across the country are seeing this, whether there have been polls taken on this IRS issue and what they look like. 

Susan Page (USA Today):  You know, I saw a poll that Gallup came out with this morning and one that -- a similar one that Pew, I think, came out with yesterday or the day before that showed relatively low public interest in all these scandals. And you know why? It's because people are worried about their jobs and their health care and sending their kids to college.

Diane Rehm: Exactly.

Susan Page:  And that is something to remember as well. And then that is why President Obama, today, is not talking about these scandals. He's going to Baltimore. He's going to an elementary school. He's going to go to a job training program because, of course, that is what Americans are most focused on. 

With one poll, our 'faith healers' and 'tea leaf readers' of the press 'knew' what was what.  They didn't know a damn thing.   For the record, Susan Page is a smart journalist except when she attempts to read tea leaves.  She was far from the only offender.  With that poll and polls taken over the May 18 and 19th weekend, various 'journalists' stepped forward -- and former 'journalists' who seemed to think their work at People magazine qualified as 'news' experience -- to proclaim there was nothing to see her because polling demonstrated low interest in the scandals.  You don't determine news by polling, first of all.  'News' by polling not only would have buried the Watergate story while Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were pursuing it, it would lead to nothing but cat pictures. And isn't ABC World News already close enough to that with their insipid 'found on the web' stories?

 I don't care for Washington Week but let's note host Gwen Ifill properly summarized what was going on May 17th, "Good evening.  This week saw a remarkable collision of outrage and investigation, printing and politics.  And as the week ends, we still haven’t really gotten to the bottom of the unfolding messes at the Justice Department, the State Department, the IRS, and ultimately, the White House."   Even more important, and why I'm noting Washington Week (PBS),  John Dickerson (Slate and CBS News) grasped polls.

JOHN DICKERSON:  There’s a way also in which this IRS scandal in particular bleeds over into other things.  Seventy three percent of the country already doesn’t trust government, so is already a pretty small group of people who still trusted their government.  But the argument from conservatives for ages has been even if there’s no wrongdoing, this is what happens when you have a big government.  So let’s leave aside the question whether these people were politically motivated at the IRS.  Just big government does things to get in the way of –

He's citing a different poll!  Right, he's citing an established poll.  A poll that you can look at and you can look at the ones before it and you can see a trend.  And the poll was taken before the scandals emerged in the press.  Let's stay with Washington Week for a moment because it's so rare I ever praise them but Gwen and company deserve praise on this.  From the May 24th show (two Fridays after the scandals emerged):

MS. IFILL: OK. We’re going to move on to another nagging policy problem, the targeting of the political sort. And that’s at the IRS. The official in charge of the mess took the fifth rather than testify before Congress, then was placed on paid leave. But the uproar continued, and in the end you could be forgiven for not knowing whom to trust. With all the shifting accounts surrounding this, is government losing the credibility wars in this, Dan?

MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, Gwen, there are a lot of angles, you know, from which you can look at this IRS scandal, but that’s clearly one of them. Even before this, we know that the trust in government was at a low ebb. The Pew Research Center did a survey that came out a month ago or so that said the image of the federal government was at the lowest that they had ever found. The trust in government to do the right thing most of the time is at or close to its historic lows. That was all before this.   You know, I had a conversation with President-elect Obama in December of 2008. And one of the things I asked him was, in essence, do you think your election meant that there is greater receptivity to bigger government and more activist government. And he said to me at the time – he said, I don’t think it’s a question of bigger or smaller government. And he said, I think there is skepticism of government that’s kind of been baked into the system since Ronald Reagan or if not a little before. He said, the real question is, can we have smarter government or more effective government?  And I think if you look at where we are today, you have to say he’s failed that test. I mean, you’ve got the IRS problem. You’ve got the – you know, the Defense Department under scrutiny because of sexual assaults that they’ve not been able to bring under control; the State Department because of Benghazi and the lack of security. You’ve got – you know, you’ve got a variety of big, important agencies that have either ethical lapses, legal problems or managerial flaws that the public is seeing. And I don’t think there’s any way that in this environment people are going to say, I have a lot of confidence that government is going to do good things or the right things.

That's Dan Balz of the Washington Post.  He's talking about the same poll that John Dickerson did.
Diane Rehm was completely wrong.  The poll Susan Page cited was meaningless.  We could provide many others who cited many other just completed polls and gas bagged over them wasting time and leaving audiences with the wrong impression.  But what happened on The Diane Rehm Show May 17th was typical.  What happened on Washington Week the same day and the next Friday was not typical for the press.  (Though it does seem to be typical for this year of Washington Week.)

 If you don't get that those citing instant polls were wrong, let's drop back to the June 6, 2013 snapshot:


 On the scandals, a new NBC News - Wall St. Journal poll has been released.  Chuck Todd was on NBC's Today show this morning discussing it with Savannah Guthrie (here for video).  Todd noted "major erosion over independents -- political independents -- over a three month period.  The President's support among independents has gone from 41% to a very paltry 29%.  That is an ominous sign."  Last week, Rebecca noted the erosion of independents and last night she noted Jake Miller (CBS News) reporting on the new Bloomberg News poll which finds 47% of Americans surveyed do not believe Barack is being truthful with the American public.

Chuck Todd:  But then if you look at certain presidential characteristics, you sort of see how this trio of controversies in Washington -- IRS, Benghazi -- have impacted the president.  His ability to handle a crisis -- confidence in this, all down.  Strong leadership qualities -- down.  Being honest and straight forward -- public down.  All of these areas not looking good as far as the public is concerned.  And this is the way you can see the public is just not happy with the way the President is running the country.

Here are the numbers displayed onscreen about the three most prominent scandals:


                                              RAISES DOUBT         NO DOUBT
BENGHAZI                                         58%                     27%
DOJ MEDIA SUBPOENA                 58%                     23%
IRS                                                        55%                     26%

A different set of numbers.  Less than a week after Anita Hill testified before Congress in 1991, a friend who was a senator said to me he was so glad that the storm had been "weathered."  (This was a Democratic senator.)  I told him he was insane.  He pointed to a poll that had just come out.  I spent the rest of that year saying it was not going away and it didn't.  The Gender Quake of the 1992 elections can be traced directly to Hill.

Instant polling is meaningless.  Diane Rehm is supposed to be a journalist but she's saying, to Susan Page above, "Exactly."  But people really aren't focused on health care, sorry Susan.  They had, at that point, bought into the lie of a 'recovering economy,' so the notion that they were obsessed with that is dubious as well.   And a real host would have pointed that out.  Instead, Diane rushed in with, "Exactly!"  Because it made her feel good.  And that's what the instant polling is about.  You're not measuring what people really think because they haven't had time to reflect.

You're measuring what they hope.  I say this over and over, but as someone who took research methodology classes and demographics and statistics, I can't believe how ignorant of polling the media is.  Greeted with bad news, a large segment (and this is true of polling from the beginning of polling) of the population will enter denial unless there is a confession from the authority figure accused.  Even then, you can get up to 30% denial.

In the aftermath of Hill - Thomas (law professor Anita Hill came forward to testify of how her then-boss at the EEOC, Clarence Thomas, had harassed her), the public 'supported' Clarence Thomas.  Thomas was a Supreme Court nominee.  Diane Rehm's "Exactly!" response of dismissing bad news was at play.  People didn't want to believe that a nominee for the Supreme Court -- who got confirmed -- could have done what Clarence Thomas did.

That's the immediate reaction.  But people mull things over, they deliberate in their heads as they would on a jury.  And that's why instant polling on an issue is so stupid because most don't understand how to interpret it.  The only thing to watch for in an instant poll is those with no vested interest.  Is there any movement there?  If there's any movement there to one side by that group, that generally tells you the direction things will trend in.  So, if you're talking politics, in the poll you study independent voters -- who may be 'swing' voters or may be undecideds but are not vested to a partisan game.  They are still vested with the American notion of deference to authority figures.  That's why you're looking for any movement there in an instant poll -- big or small.   Is there any movement there?

Given a few weeks to play out, other segments in the poll will tend to trend in the same direction as those with no vested interest.  That's what's happened and why last week's NBC News - Wall St. Journal poll found what it did.

The most important part of polling, which most journalists never seem to grasp, is what it tells us -- polling as a whole -- about human nature.  Until you can talk about those trends, you really shouldn't speak of poll that's just been released because you honestly lack the skill to speak with any knowledge.

The Washington Post bills Jon Cohen as "Cohen is polling director for Capital Insight, Washington Post Media’s independent polling group. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report."  Really?  Because most "polling directors" would immediately know to identify the margin of error in the poll -- not in paragraph ten.  Of course, identify the plus/minus 4.5% margin of error would question all of Cohen's conclusions.  But you don't even need the margin of error to question.  Just look at these two assertions by Jon Cohen:

* Fully 45 percent of all Americans say the government should be able to go further than it is, saying that it should be able to monitor everyone’s online activity if doing so would prevent terrorist attacks. A slender majority, 52 percent, say no such broad-based monitoring should occur. 

*  Overall, 56 percent of Americans consider the NSA accessing telephone call records of millions of Americans through secret court orders “acceptable,” while 41 percent call the practice “unacceptable.”

The two claims are in conflict with one another indicating a polling problem.  What was being measured is not clear to those being surveyed if 52% say (in first claim) "no such broad-based monitoring should occur" and (in the second claim) 56% see it as "acceptable."  Why is that?  Look at the actual questions and you find that it's presented as an abstract and an either or -- either you're 'protected' by the government from 'terrorism' or you have your rights.  These are charged questions and I would argue this is an example of push-pulling.

Even with push-polling, they don't really get the results that they should (indicating the public is and will be rejecting of the 'protection' rationale).  Look at this question (the worst in the survey):

What do you think is more important right now - (for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy); or (for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats)?

Those are false choices and meant to encourage an emotional response.   Democrats went with the first choice (69% -- 28% for the second choice); Republicans went with the first choice (62% -- 37% for the second choice) and Independents went with the first choice (59% -- 38% for the second choice).  Those figures should be much higher due to the falsehood and fear factor built into the question.  That a third of those surveyed rejected it indicates fear is no longer as powerful as a motivator on this issue.

Did you notice the highest figure was independents?  Yes, that is key and it is telling.  Yet
Cohen babbles on at length about the flip for Democrats and Republicans -- more Dems were outraged in 2006 by Bully Boy Bush's spying than are today by Barack's; more Republicans are outraged today than were outraged under Bully Boy Bush -- but he never manages to  look to the one group that could provide a real trend: Independents.

Despite using eleven paragraphs, Cohen never notes independents.  Here's the more specific question.

As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?

That's a more specific question.  And the results are more specific.

Acceptable: Democrats 64% say the reveled actions are "acceptable,"  52% of Republicans say it's acceptable and 53% of Independents say it's "acceptable."  Unacceptable?  34% of Democrats, 47% of Republicans and 44% of Independents.  And that's where the danger signal is most visible.   The biggest support is from the party that occupies the White House.  The least stated support?  Republicans and Independents are basically in a tie.  The same with regards to those who find it unacceptable.   When the opposition party and independents track, it's never good news for the party in power.

Another revealing question is the one "ASKED JUNE 7-9, 2013 ONLY):

Do you think the U.S. government should be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks?

 45% say yes, 52% say no.  Again, fear tactics have lost their appeal.  That breaks down to the largest support from Democrats 53% (43% of Democrats say no).  45% of Republicans say yes and 51% say no.  Independents?  Only 38% say yes (60% say no).  Again, the tell in an instant poll is always the least vested group. 

With these right after the fact polls, you're dealing with more reluctance to call something wrong then you will see a few weeks later, polls where the "exactly!" is exclaimed in relief as people attempt to ignore the facts and see the situation as brightly as possible.

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