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Military Times Damages Credibility with Obama "Survey"

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Once again, the widely-read Military Times is deliberately attempting to accentuate the perceived rift between the military and the incoming Obama administration by promoting an amateurish, unscientific survey called the "2008 Military Times Poll." Here's the headline for the main article:

2008 Military Times poll: Wary about Obama

Troops cite inexperience, Iraq timetable

Using the same data, they also have an accompanying piece with a similarly divisive lead:

Troops oppose repeal of 'don't ask'

Of course, both articles are full of self-selected, academically useless responses from the Military Times' older, white, subscribing readership. The only question is whether they're doing this deliberately, or whether no one who works at the paper is actually educated enough to know how important the difference is between a scientific survey and a haphazardly conducted poll of subscribers who choose to participate.

Either way, they've completely blown up the idea of journalistic credibility by actively pushing this nonsense. And this is critically important because the Military Times has long been the most respected source of objective information for uniformed service members.

Let's start with the main piece. It begins this way:

When asked how they feel about President-elect Barack Obama as commander in chief, six out of 10 active-duty service members say they are uncertain or pessimistic, according to a Military Times survey.

This is dishonesty right off the bat. By saying "six out of 10 active-duty service members," the Times is implying that they've randomly selected active duty members of the military for the survey -- and that their sample is representative of the entire military. They're implying this because that's how professional, credible polling companies conduct surveys. Unfortunately, the Military Times is either too cheap or too daft to do a poll the right way. So naturally, I looked for an explanation. At the very bottom of the page, I found a link with the fine print:

Although public opinion pollsters use random selection to survey the general public, the Military Times survey is based on responses from those who chose to participate. That means it is impossible to calculate statistical margins of error commonly reported in opinion surveys, because those calculations depend on random sampling techniques.

The voluntary nature of the survey, the dependence on e-mail and the characteristics of Military Times readers could affect the results.

No. Sorry guys. It couldn't just "affect the results." It actually invalidates the entire survey as anything resembling a realistic reflection of attitudes within the military.

Nevertheless, the Times spends the next 11 paragraphs highlighting the dissension and distrust within the ranks toward Obama--through commentary like this:

"Being that the Marine Corps can be sent anywhere in the world with the snap of his fingers, nobody has confidence in this guy as commander in chief," said one lance corporal who asked not to be identified.

For eight years, members of the U.S. military have served under a Republican commander in chief who reflected their generally conservative views and led them to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now, the troops face change not only at the very top of the chain of command, as Obama nears his Jan. 20 inauguration, but perhaps in mission, policy and values.

Underlying much of the uncertainty is Obama's stated 16-month timetable for pulling combat troops out of Iraq, as well as his calls to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy to allow gays to serve openly in the military, according to survey responses and interviews.

"How are you going to safely pull combat troops out of Iraq?" said Air Force 1st Lt. Rachel Kleinpeter, an intelligence officer with the 100th Operations Support Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England. "And if you're pulling out combat troops, who are you leaving to help support what's left? What happens if Iraq falls back into chaos? Are we going to be there in five years doing the same thing over again?"

Oddly enough, after spending nearly half the piece suggesting that the survey is representative of the military as a whole, the Times quietly slips in these two sentences:

The responses are not representative of the opinions of the military as a whole. The survey group overall under-represents minorities, women and junior enlisted service members, and over-represents soldiers.

So they're basically saying, "Pay no attention to our divisive headlines or, in fact, most of our article. Just accept our conclusions as we've framed them, even though we're now telling you that we knowingly under-represented Obama's primary constituency, and that we have no scientific basis for what we're presenting as 'facts.'"

But it doesn't get any better. The second piece using the "data" is just as shoddy in its analysis of troop attitudes toward the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. First paragraph:

Most active-duty service members continue to oppose President-elect Barack Obama's campaign pledge to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy to allow gays to serve openly in the military, a Military Times survey shows.

Again, this is total dishonesty. By saying "most active-duty service members," the Military Times is insulting each individual who's ever worked hard to earn a graduate degree in the field of social sciences. They've provided no empirical evidence to corroborate such a statement. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not. But we have no way of knowing based on the ridiculous data they've provided.

To their credit, in this second piece, the Times does interview two supporters of the DADT policy and two who oppose it. However, the "expert" chosen by the paper to represent the anti-gay viewpoint is none other than Elaine Donnelly, to whom they allocate a full 20 percent of the article. For those who are unfamiliar, Elaine Donnelly is the unbalanced, homophobic, nutjob who reporters and Congressional committees trot out whenever they need a useful bigot to represent the minority of Americans who disapprove of homosexuality. Donnelly doesn't even have any connection with the military other than her vociferous opposition to gays serving in it. She never served in uniform and she has no discernible academic background on the topic (as the other expert for the piece does). As far as I can tell, she attended community college in Livonia, Michigan and then earned some undergrad credits at the University of Detroit. Which makes her as much of an expert on the matter as your average policy analyst from the local Klavern down on County Road 126.

Elaine Donnelly, the founder and president of the Center for Military Readiness, which supports the ban, said the number of discharges under "don't ask, don't tell" could be reduced to near zero if induction forms contained a question about sexual preference.

. . .

Donnelly warned of the consequences in repealing the ban, which she said could include forced cohabitation of heterosexuals and homosexuals in all branches of the military and disciplinary action against those who oppose or protest the integration.

So on top of faulty data, the Times is resorting to the use of a simple extremist to provide perspective on the debate.

The overarching problem with these pieces is that the Military Times has sacrificed journalistic integrity in order to portray itself as the final word -- as the authority -- on the views of America's troops. In reality, however, they were too lazy or too cheap to conduct a real survey. And by not doing so, they've now contributed to the false -- but titillating and dramatic! -- storyline they seem so eager to push.

I don't know if they just think it's what their readers want to hear, or if they think their readers are just too stupid to notice. I would assume, however, that the Military Times realizes that, while most of their subscribers older and white, the majority of their young, under-represented active duty readers likely pick up copies at the AAFES cash register -- and don't receive them via subscriptions. Personally, I used to read the paper version of the Army Times every week. But I've never met anyone with a subscription.

Regardless, by being so careless, they've done a disservice to both the military and its new Commander-in-Chief. If they're going to conduct self-selecting polls like these, they need to quit promoting them as representative of the entire military. Because they're not.

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