My recent screed against junk polls (Media Circus, May 2) was somewhat abbreviated, of necessity, and I was left holding a couple of brickbats that I still want to hurl against the use of pseudo-statistical "interactive features."
First: The proliferation of meaningless "listener polls" and such can't help but erode the news value of real, statistically significant polls. The more naive reader or listener can be misled into giving factoids as much credence as facts; just as damaging, more skeptical readers might decide that all polls, regardless of method and scope, are equally suspect. Authentic polls are as indispensable to policy-makers and journalists as X-rays are to physicians. Junk polls, to stretch the simile, are comparable to those "X-ray specs" that used to be advertised in the backs of comic books.
Am I taking this subject too seriously? I don't think so. For an example of just how pernicious a shoddy poll can be, turn to All the President's Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's classic account of uncovering Watergate. Among its many dirty tricks, Richard Nixon's overzealous Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP, for short) made gleeful use of a junk poll initiated by a Washington TV station, WTTG, concerning the controversial U.S. mining of North Vietnam's Haiphong Harbor in 1972. In a manner that now seems endearingly old-fashioned, WTTG urged listeners to cast their "vote" for or against the mining by sending cards to the station. Clip-out "ballots" ran in ads published in both of Washington's dailies, the Post and the Star. The CREEPsters bought more than 4,000 papers just to clip the ballots, which they filled out with fake names and pro-mining "votes." To these they adhered a deliberately random assortment of first-class stamps, then dropped the fraudulent mail off at mailboxes and post offices all over the Washington area. The newspapers, minus coupons, were shredded. Thanks to this stunt, WTTG reported that 5,157 respondents supported Nixon's tactic while only 1,158 opposed it. Confronted later by Woodward, a CREEP spokesperson said, "When you're involved in an election, you do what you can. . . . We assumed the other side would do it also." The trick would have gone undetected had a guilt-stricken 19-year-old GOP activist not blabbed to the Post.
Computers, of course, save those who would manipulate junk polls the trouble of clipping, stamping, scattered-site mailing, and shredding the evidence. A few keystrokes and you too can distort the political playing field.