Sunday, October 10, 2004

 

Dispatch responds to poll critics

Last week I criticized the way the Dispatch handled how it announced it poll results, and offered three possible reasons for the paper's mishandling:

1) They just screwed up and it never occurred to them to think about the timing. Even given the obvious post debate bounce for Kerry, once they committed the time and resources and the likelihood that the results would be leaked anyway, they decided to go ahead. The weakness with this argument is that it doesn't explain the banner positioning. (A mea culpa is overdue. How about an explanation in the next Ben Marrison column?)

2) The editors had already bought into Republican spin that the race was already over, the debates will ultimately be insignificant, and the timing was meaningless.

3) John Wolfe issued the orders about where to place the poll results, and the editors did their best to not get fired but offer some sort of apologies through the numerous caveats.

Well, I was right on the money with #1 and #2. As for #3 - that, of course, we'll never know.

Today, editor Ben Marrison gives something of an apology under the headline, "Dispatch Poll was ill-timed - but at least we were honest":

"Our timing was poor. We should have conducted the poll a week earlier, before the first debate. I also concede that, given the outcome of the debate, we should have tempered the treatment of our poll results.

Many fumed about the headline. While it accurately portrayed the poll results, we should have made clear that they were predebate. That's fair criticism.

[. . . ]

"We had no way of knowing the debate would be so lopsided. . . Hence, post-debate publication of our poll didn't seem problematic when we planned it."

Now, I think it's surprisingly candid of Marrison to discuss this, and I feel better about him for doing it.

But what troubles me and what the Dispatch needs to address internally is the last excuse: "We had no way of knowing the debate would be so lopsided." That, my friends, is much more honest than draping it in the "bad timing" disguise.

That "we had no way of knowing" attitude means the Dispatch and its public affairs team had given up on Kerry. They thought it was a done deal, regardless of what the debate. Four weeks out, three debates to go - bad timing? How about just admitting that it was bad journalism. Bastards were probably already writing Kerry's obit.

This attitude is not unique to the Dispatch. It plagues all of the major newspapers. Besides playing into the leading candidate's strategy, it deprives readers of ongoing objectivity about the candidates and what they stand for. Further, this is no different than the weakness a sector of voters often show when they admit that they voted for whom they perceive is the "winner" rather than who they believe is the best candidate.

Hopefully this was a sobering lesson for Marrison, Hallett, Rowland and the others. "Bush pulls in front" wasn't as stupid looking as "Dewey beats Truman" but the same stupidity was behind both.

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