Successful design of a public-interest poll comes from making it easy for the respondent to answer truthfully. All survey questions, except the very rare "open ended" questions, offer the respondent some choices — in poor polls, just one or two choices, like "agree/disagree," "yes/no," etc. Better polls typically offer several choices. Public-interest polls offer all choices that can be found from top leaders and others across the political spectrum, including a few radical choices. The Americans Talk Issues Foundation (ATIF), of which I am president, offers for one question as many as 50 different response choices that prove statistically meaningful to Americans!
Enlightened over the years by ATIF and other public-interest polls, I am repeatedly amazed at how hard the typical respondent tries to oblige the interviewer. Part of that sense of obligation seems to come from the fact that most people, called at random and who pass a screen — such as "registered voter" or "adult over 18" — after hearing a well-designed introductory request for proceeding with a survey, agree to do so. If it is not too lengthy and the questions remain not unreasonable, they complete the survey as if abiding by a "social contract." Respondents, trying hard to make answers reflect their thoughts, can differ enormously from the same people reacting to a question or topic arising in ordinary conversation among friends, family or acquaintances. In the latter case, they may become defensive, reserved and protective of privacy, or may try to deflect questions with humor, hog the conversation or change the subject. The frankness of strangers sitting next to each other on a plane having a remarkably deep conversation is reminiscent of typical public-interest poll respondent attitudes.
Polling experience teaches much about media interviewing. Mainstream news media interviewers ask good questions covering the subject thoroughly, but never directly disputing anything the interviewee says. Questions are always open-ended, no "choices" offered. U.S. journalism schools teach that this is close to the proper "objective" way to interview. Any questions or interviewer statements that publicly challenge the factually presented statements of well-known people or experts is deemed tantamount to interviewers intruding with their own views. Such an interview becomes not about the interviewee but about a journalist interviewer, who may be blacklisted for such behavior.
Many U.S. media news program hosts ignore these journalism rules and blithely say whatever they think they can get away with that fits their story and their politics. Interviewees with differing politics are not asked questions, just given a few opportunities to speak, subject to immediate interruption. Lies never catch up to most of the huge, loyal audiences for many such personalities (mostly conservatives) on media networks, such as FOX and the 1,200-plus radio stations owned by Clear Channel Inc. — a media conglomerate.
One of the few interviewers on U.S. TV who speaks the truth about politics, although it is often wrapped in outrageous funny statements and skits, is Jon Stewart of the Comedy Channel's "Daily Show." Top political and media people feel compelled to appear on the show with Stewart. Politics is treated as a "serious" joke, so controversial views can be dismissed as clowning. Many a true word that cannot be heard on the mainstream news channels is said in jest by Stewart and his interviewees on the Daily Show.
Top politicians and officials need to win over the public by submitting to publicly televised interviews and press conference questioning. How do they avoid telling the truth? Some of them have been living in an insider's world so long that they do not know when they lie. Others lie by omission, not by commission, and many think this is not really lying — just misleading, the same way most advertising is misleading. Most of them, when a tough question is asked, simply choose not to answer the question. They frame a statement in language that makes it sound like they are answering the tough question, but that often doesn't. The audience may feel that they or the politician misunderstood the question or the interviewer did not phrase it clearly. In the confusion, the audience loses sight of the no-answer answer.
President George W. Bush, who uses polls constantly while simultaneously decrying them, gives very few press conferences. He uses simple sentences and slowly, carefully chosen words. Bush limits questioners to a few reporters he trusts, and if all else fails, simply deflects the question and refuses an answer. He is self-protective — as if he were a dummy, but he is not. He comes across as smarter than expected and as outsmarting the media. The attitude of roughly half of adult Americans to Bush interviews is: "I like him. He's great. He's our guy."
Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesperson is unflappable. The White House reporters have succumbed to his needs. He seldom needs to use the discipline he possesses to deny reporters coveted White House press cards. Questions get responses like, "Don't know" or "I'll ask the president" or simply one so audacious that no one wants to take him on. When a reporter asked: "How come the president seeks large contributions from people invited to elaborate, expensive White House events, and it was Republicans that criticized the Democrats for selling overnights in the Lincoln bedroom?" Fleischer answered, "We do not sell overnights in the Lincoln bedroom," ending that line of questioning.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is on air 24/7, seems honest and endearing. He responds truthfully to any publicly asked question, sometimes agonizingly confessing, "I don't know," as if he wished he could say more. He remains silent and reasonably truthful behind the protective coloration of national security. He did approve a $7billion contract before the war started to Halliburton for handling oil-well emergencies in Iraq. When asked about that before the war, he said no contracts existed. When much later the contract became known, having a playable but unneeded national security card, he is washed clean by the passage of time and again seems honest. Another example, relying on his super-honest reputation and in the best tradition of Goebbel's big lie theory, Rumsfeld and other top leaders in the administration said invasion of Iraq was "not about oil." The media were so cowed that no one challenged it, even lightly, with a question like, "Well, why not about oil? We need the oil, you know." Even though nobody believes the United States will leave Iraq without being sure that oil output will be handled entirely to U.S. liking, no one challenged Rumsfeld.
Democrats employ similar tactics. For example, all politicians swear that their highest motivation is protecting America, but very few acknowledge that this requires multilateral diplomacy in today's globalized world. Reporters, editors, anchors, and media moguls please note: exposure and ridicule for not responding to comprehensive and fair multiple-choice questions would lead to much needed honesty, integrity and openness from elected officials.
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