10/10/2013 12:52 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2013

Someone Had This Crazy Notion That Maybe The Media Should Inform The Public About Stuff

Meet The Press

One of the best teachers I ever had was Ms. Bresnick, who taught my AP Biology class at South Lakes High School. After our class took a test, in addition to grading our exams, she took the time to do some statistical sampling to try to figure out how and why our wrong answers tended to cluster.

The day after she'd done this, our class would convene and we'd go over the entire test. If a large enough percentage of the class had failed to answer a question correctly, she took responsibility on the grounds that she'd failed to provide adequate instruction. So, those questions would get thrown out, and she'd dive down on the matter at hand at teach us until we all got it. Naturally, we all loved this approach because our test scores went up, but the real point was the learning, and the way Ms. Bresnick set an example and fostered a shared responsibility in all of us. At the end of the day, we all knew and retained more of the material, and that was the whole point, right?

I bring up this anecdote only because over at The Atlantic Derek Thompson presents his readers with an idea that is, sadly, sort of a radical notion for the Beltway media: "Polls are fun and can be important. But when journalists think the public is wrong, they have an obligation to say so."

There are many different types of polls. The ones we're most familiar with gauge public opinion -- asking what policies the public finds to be important, what political figures garner approval or disapproval, or for which candidate from a range of options people are likely to vote. But there's a whole different set of polling that's conducted to measure how aware the public is of basic facts. Thompson cites one poll in particular that found that nearly 70 percent of respondents were of the erroneous belief that the U.S. deficit grew larger over the past year, when in fact it has fallen. The public is thus discovered to be laboring under a factual misapprehension.

Thompson brings all of this up for a worthy reason -- these sorts of polls often end up backstopping a lot of false equivalence. He cites a Ron Fournier piece in which Fournier first asserts that it "would be false equivalence to say Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the government shutdown and the possibility of a debt default," but then cites a poll in which "only 37 percent approve of the way the president is handling his job." So despite the fact that Fournier can objectively understand what's going on, he concludes that there must be something to what's not going on, because such a large share of the public believes that what's not going on is what's actually happening. Or, as Thompson puts it:

In other words, we can all agree that Republicans are responsible for the shutdown, but public opinion also blames the Democrats, and so [in Fournier's own words] "it is a pox on both houses."

Thompson compellingly argues that this sort of polling, and these sorts of interpretations, fuel the false equivalence industry, so go read the whole thing. But that's not the only great thing about what Thompson's done here. Let's just go back to the baseline premise of the piece: "When journalists think the public is wrong, they have an obligation to say so."

Here's a very weird moment that happened on "Meet The Press" back on Sept. 15:

DAVID GREGORY: We're back with more politics. Our political director, Chuck Todd, with his First Read Sunday. We just talked about the debt ceiling business. You're looking at this, this week, out of our poll.

CHUCK TODD: We did. And we have a poll, and we show the initial gauge of the public. The default position is, "Don't raise it." Look at this, 44% say no, 22% say yes. The White House pushing back on this poll saying, "Well, you have to explain it to the people." Well, this is the exact same place the debt ceiling was in April, 2011.

Now, by the time it hit a crisis point, more of the public moved into in favor of raising the debt ceiling. But what this shows is the president has to use political capital and time to flip these numbers. It's going to be a lot of work.

Okay, so, there was a poll that found a plurality of respondents believed, incorrectly, that not raising the debt ceiling was an option. (It is, of course, not an option, unless you want to destroy the economy in a default crisis.) Todd makes note of the fact that the public is wrong on this, and adds the "good news" that the last time there was a crisis, the public started out being wrong on the debt ceiling in equal proportions but eventually slid, over time, into the informed position that the debt ceiling must be raised.

All well and good. But the puzzling thing about this segment is where he contends, "What this shows is the president has to use political capital and time to flip these numbers." Huh, what now?

This does not make sense at all. Leaving aside the fact that it's weird to suggest that one spend "political capital" on a matter such as the debt ceiling, which is neither a partisan issue nor a subject for debate, why is it solely President Barack Obama's responsibility? Chuck Todd and David Gregory may not have been aware of this, but as they were discussing this matter there were TV cameras pointed at them, beaming their image all over the world into people's homes. This presented a golden opportunity to fulfill their obligation to properly inform the public. So why not do it? For whatever reason, Todd and Gregory passed on the chance, and in so doing they allowed error to flourish.

For this reason, I'm glad that Thompson very pointedly takes the public off the hook for being misinformed: "The point isn't that Americans are stupid," he writes.

That calls to mind one of the more idiotic things I've had the misfortune to read in my life -- Politico's infamous "How much do voters know?" article, which compared the American people, proudly, to Forrest Gump. One of the things I recall about that piece was this part:

Voters are appalled at President Barack Obama's handling of gas prices, even though virtually every policy expert in both parties says there's little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market.

In other words, "Lookit these dumb voters, holding Obama responsible for gas prices when there's nothing he can do about them, har har, what idiots." Well, it didn't take me very long to find a whole slew of Politico articles that were written to make it sound like the president could "affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market," by never properly informing readers of a simple reality. (Doing so would have gotten in the way of their "who's up/who's down" coverage.) All in all, it was a pretty nice trick -- consistently misinform the public on an issue and then castigate them for being misinformed. This is basically depraved indifference by definition.

Fun fact: a Sept. 19 Gallup poll found that 55 percent of the public has either "not very much" trust in the media, or none at all. While the public may be wrong on what's happening with the deficit, they have this exactly right. Perhaps doing what Derek Thompson suggests might turn this around? Surely it's not too much to ask the media to simply do the things my AP Biology teacher did.

False Equivalence That Leans on Public Opinion Is Still False Equivalence [The Atlantic]

Are Voters Stupid, Or Are They Just Routinely Subjected To Terrible Political Reporting?

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