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Outside Voices: Chuck Todd's Problem With Media Polling

(National Journal)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we asked Chuck Todd, Editor-in-Chief of The Hotline to help kick off election season and help prepare us for the coming media coverage. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Chuck:

Over the next few weeks, your local newspapers and TV stations are going to discover that there are actual elections taking place. So the good folks at the "Public Eye" thought it would be beneficial to put together one person's viewer's guide of what to expect.

First, let's get to the good news. The coverage of this non-presidential election cycle is going to be better than any in a generation. Why? Because the issues being debated are so serious. There is a real debate going on between both parties about the direction of the war in Iraq and whether that war is part of the "war on terror." Will voters go into the voting booth worried about Iraq or worried about terrorism? That question probably will have a lot to do with whether voters pull the Democrat or Republican lever.

This isn't like 1994 when the debate was about whether voters liked or hated Bill Clinton. Or like 1998 when it was about whether voters were so disgusted with Clinton they would take it out on his party. Or 2002, when one party was talking about the issue on the top of everyone's mind (war) and the other party was talking about health care or the economy or anything BUT the issue at hand.

This cycle, there are two distinct opinions on the number one issue at hand: Iraq. This issue will frame the coverage of the campaign because the campaigns themselves are not going to avoid the topic. They can't. A few months ago, it appeared the Republicans may try to figure out how to talk about other issues (taxes or immigration, for instance) but no more. Watching President Bush these last few days should put to rest any theory that the Republicans would attempt to localize these midterms.

So that's the good news. The bad news is that there are still some sloppy things the press does when it covers campaigns. The biggest and most frustrating are decisions news operations make about polls. When a local TV station contracts out to get a poll taken on the local race of interest to the public, what that news station has decided to do is "create" news, not report it.

If a news organization does enough of those polls, they can actually influence the campaign. And yet, no news organization even debates whether they should do a poll. And don't get me started on the various polling organizations that are used by media outlets. A few are good (Mason-Dixon, Research 2000, Selzer and Co.) but most are erratic. And that, of course, is why it drives me crazy that news organizations so easily decide they need to "create" news and horse-race poll a local senate, House or governor's contest. How does a poll help the viewer and the voter? If the news organization decided it was going to do a poll on a political race for internal use because they were deciding whether to devote more resources to covering a campaign, I might buy the logic.

But that isn't why news organizations poll. They poll to make news about the campaign, not cover the campaign to find out what news should be reported.

Now that I've gotten my Dennis Miller-esque rant out of the way about polling, let me just close by saying, overall, this should be one of the more higher-minded election cycles this country has had in a while. Yes, there will be negative TV ads and there will be some "who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with" type of stories on TV news, but overall, because of the seriousness of this campaign, reporters will have no choice but to cover their local battles for Congress through the national lens of the hottest topic of the day: Iraq.

Hopefully, the good folks at the "Public Eye" will invite me back in a few months, particularly if there is a change in control of Congress, to prepare folks for what will be awful coverage of the post-mortem.

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