Monday, May 15, 2006

Darn Those Blabbermouths in the MSM

A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted Friday and Saturday, and a Newsweek poll conducted Thursday and Friday, asking Americans for their opinions about Thursday's news story that the Bush administration has been collecting the calling records of millions of Americans, came up with strikingly similar results. The first-named poll showed Americans disapproving of the government collecting phone records, 51% opposed to 43% in support. In the Newsweek poll, 53% of respondents said the program was too invasive of Americans' privacy rights; 41% said it was a necessary tool to fight terrorism.

These two polls contrast sharply with Thursday's overnight poll, conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post, which found that 63% of respondents approved of the program, whereas 35% thought it was unacceptable.

Pundits, bloggers, and other media types have speculated on a few reasons why the first poll had such a different result than the two subsequent polls.

  • The WaPo/ABC News poll was conducted Thursday night -- just one night; and the story had only just broken that day. The Newsweek and Gallup polls were both conducted over two days, which means respondents had had more time to digest the news and think about it.
  • The sample sizes in the two later polls were significantly larger (1007 for Newsweek and 809 for Gallup) than the sample size in the initial poll, which was only 502.
  • The way the questions were worded might have made a difference. The Gallup Poll's website has the wording of the questions on all three polls.

Naturally, right-wing bloggers are upset about the shift in public opinion, and, as is typical for them, they are blaming the MSM for "misleading" the public with propagandistic articles about threats to civil liberties. They also fault the wording of the questions in the two later polls but -- oh, so surprising -- mention nothing about the different sample sizes or the fact that the first poll was conducted over one night, not two, and only about 12 hours after the story had been reported.

Powerline's John Hinderaker is a perfect example of this dishonest approach:

I'm traveling on business, so the first thing I saw this morning was the USA Today that was delivered to my hotel room. It prominently features the USA Today/Gallup poll that finds respondents disapproving of the NSA's phone number database by 51% to 43%. These results contrast with the mostly-favorable poll reaction immediately after the poll was first disclosed.

The newspaper story that accompanies the poll results says that these results vary because the questions were worded differently. I think that's true. The key question in the USA Today/Gallup poll was:

Based on what you have heard or read about this program to collect phone records, would you say you approve or disapprove of this government program?

The NSA program has been so widely mis-reported as a domestic spying program, or wiretapping program, that it is no wonder that many disapprove. Answers to other questions in the poll suggest that the main reason for disapproval is either confusion about what the program consists of, or fear that there are other programs or elements of this program that are still unknown. Thus, a whopping 63% answered "Yes" to:

Are you concerned that, based on this program, the government would listen in on telephone conversations within the U.S. without first obtaining a warrant?

I'd guess that a big portion of that 63% have gotten the impression from news stories that such eavesdropping is going on.

First, the phone call record database is a domestic spying program. It's not an eavesdropping or wiretapping program -- yet. Neither have any media outlets I have seen or read portrayed it as such. That said, given the Bush administration's history of ignoring the law and congressional oversight requirements about absolutely everything related to the so-called war on terror; and given the fact that the Bush administration has actually lied many times already about the NSA spy program -- that it existed at all; that it was used to spy on Americans; that Congress had approved it -- Americans are perfectly justified in worrying that the government will listen to their phone calls, will misidentify innocent Americans as terrorists, and will lie about doing these things, as they have lied about all the things we now know -- thanks to a media that sometimes does its job -- that they have already done.

No comments: