The media has been fixating on Donald Trump's surprising "surge" in the polls. But the real story, according to Bob, is more predictable: the media's sloppy and disingenuous use of polls to fill air time and manufacture conflict.
Update: Here's a clarification on how we characterized "margin of error" erroneously in this segment.
*************** THIS IS A RUSHED, UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT************
BOB: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, Brooke Gladstone is away this week, I’m Bob Garfield and this is, well, you know..
TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people. They’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. they’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists…”[Trump Rapists]
BOB: After Donald Trump finished sewing up the paranoid racist vote recently, this happened:
“Trump has been surging in the Republican polls, up to second place in the first primary state of New Hampshire.”
“That new national CNN poll also has Donald Trump polling in second place, behind Jeb Bush…”
“Look at Donald Trump here at 12%. He is bleeding off a tremendous amount of support from the field…”
“Wow, impressive. It’s not fair to call Donald Trump a joke candidate any more.”
BOB: No, it’s fair. From birther ravings to comparing Obamacare to Nazism to declarations of native Mexican criminality, Trump is absolutely a joke -- along the lines of the kid in geometry class making fart sounds in his armpit, What’s not a joke is how the press reported those poll numbers -- and most others. Republican races. Democratic races. General elections. It’s not funny because journalistic malpractice -- especially serial malpractice -- is no laughing matter.
“The CNN poll shows Jeb Bush in the lead, followed by Donald Trump, followed by Huckabee, Ben Carson…”
BOB: It’s hard to even know where to begin, but let’s start at the most basic. In the poll cited, Bush isn’t ahead. Trump isn’t second. Mike Huckabee isn’t third. Due mainly to a small sample size, the margin of error in the poll is 5 percentage points -- which means their actual ranking could be entirely different. Though reporters tend to add the margin of error as a kind of boilerplate disclaimer….
The polls have a 3% margin of error.”
“That poll has a margin of error of 4%...”
“So there’s a five percent margin of error in this poll…”
BOB: ...it isn’t some sort of obscure technicality. If the margin of error is 5%, that means you can add or subtract 5 points from any result and be just as accurate. Which means that, in a tight horserace, the numbers are so rough as to be literally meaningless. Meaningless.
“46% of debate watchers said the President won the debate. 39% said Mitt Romney did better. There is a seven point margin of error, though, so it was technically a draw.”[Seven Percent]
BOB: Secondly, the contest for the 2016 Republican nomination isn’t a close horse race, because for now it isn’t a horse race at all -- just a lot of nags milling around the paddock. 32 candidates for one nomination to be decided a year from now. Never mind Skip Andrews, K. Ross Newland, Kerry Bowers, Dale Christensen and John Dummett Jr., most voters have never heard of Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham. They have heard of Donald Trump, who has a lot of name recognition, like Justin Bieber Al Sharpton and gonorrhea.
Recall that at this point in 1959, when Adlai Stevenson and Senate ingenue John F. Kennedy looked toward a crucial Ohio Democratic primary, Ohio polls had Kennedy trailing...Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. This year, with about 75% of Republicans undecided, polls at this stage are little more than a familiarity meter. In a head-to-head race against Skip Andrews, gonorrhea would probably lead by 30 points.
That’s what the anchors mean when they say…..
it’s really too early to be looking at any polls in the cycle…”
so, this is really early days. And anything can happen.
He [Trump] sees himself as a serious candidate, and the polls see him as a serious candidate. But, still, it’s really early in this campaign
BOB: Too early to tell. Well, here’s a thought. Then don’t tell it. Don’t tell us anything you know to be of no informational value. And that especially includes any supposed “poll” results that by definition, are misinformation.
95% of you said no. 5% said yes. In this unscientific poll.”
CNN: “Let’s put up the poll of people who watched, very unscientific, last night. People who were watching. Obviously that’s a stilted group. Yes/No on pre and post speech feelings on whether the president’s policies will move us in the right direction.
CNBC: “We’re gonna close the poll on our vote from our viewers. It’s unscientific. They choose to vote, we don’t choose them. 56% believe that an increase in the minimum wage helps the economy, while the other 44% believe that it hurts the economy.”
BOB: Being unscientific doesn’t mean the 56% number is possibly unreliable. It means the 56% number is worthless. Absent a projectable random sample, it has no statistical foundation whatsoever. Margin of error: 100%. In other words: it’s a fake. And no perfunctory shrug of acknowledgement excuses journalists for passing along counterfeit data -- anymore than a pharmacist can be excused for dispensing counterfeit medications just because he calls the formulation unscientific beforehand.
People swallow the stuff anyway.
The trading in phony polls, often justified as “interesting and fun” is a toxic disregard for the truth. It should be simply unthinkable -- like, I dunno, passing along alarming unconfirmed reports on breaking news,...
“There have been reports of gunshots heard at the navy yard. [...]
BOB: ... or permitting to go unchallenged demonstrably false assertions from self-interested advocates and charlatans….
JENNY MCCARTHY: “Without a doubt in my mind, I do believe that vaccines triggered Evan’s autism.”
BOB: ,,, or letting nakedly political spin pose as news analysis...
BROKAW: “What did you think was President Bush’s strongest moment? Hillary Clinton: “I have to confess, I didn’t have any of those moments. I thought the President just didn’t have a plan for the future ….. and that John Kerry, again, was just absolutely masterful. Tom Brokaw: Thanks very much, Senator Hillary Clinton.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.