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MediaWatch: November 1989

Vol. Three No. 11

Margin of Error for Reporters?

A network news executive recently exposed the political agenda television network reporters brought to their coverage of the 1988 presidential campaign. At an October 20 Ripon College forum broadcast by C-SPAN, Jeff Alderman, Chief Polling Analyst for ABC News, charged that network reporters focused on Bush's negative campaigning, Iran/Contra, Ed Meese, and Dan Quayle's background, all issues of concern to liberals, and ignored what actually motivated people to vote for Bush in 1988.

"The old style, herd journalists....told us about many cutting issues that polling told us weren't cutting at all," he recalled. "I found it dismaying that the good information we and other media pollsters developed about the dynamics of the campaign beyond the horse race, so rarely made it into the reports of political correspondents. They chose, for the most part, to focus on either meaningless day-to-day events on the campaign trail, or to presume that non-issues, such as Meese and Iran-Contra, must be important to the voters, and then say that they were."

"The clear issue in the campaign, and it leaped out at you from the data, was that the election was about whether the public thought we were in good times or bad," Alderman explained. "Bush and the Republicans, and the relatively healthy economy, convinced the voters that they didn't want to switch horses. But the press chose to focus on the so-called negativism of the Bush campaign, and missed the real Bush message in the vast pre-ponderance of his advertising and public appearances: no new taxes, and no new nothing else. And that's, in the end, what the public wanted."

ABC's polling expert defended poll coverage, asking "What other type of news report do you know of which carries a methodology and a margin of error? I'd like to be able to assign a margin of error to David Broder or Ken Bode."

Alderman suggested a disclaimer network anchors could read: "This report is based on the thoughts and life experiences of our political reporter, who's a liberal Democrat, went to Swarthmore in the '60's, and has a collection of dead cats in his garage. Most of the report was based on stuff he picked up from other reporters on the campaign trail. Since a study of our reporter's past material indicates he inserts a liberal bias into much of his material, viewers should note that we are currently assigning a margin of error of plus or minus 50 to his reports." That's not such a bad idea.