Tuesday, November 23, 2004

One more item from the New York Times polling report and replies to frequent questions via e-mail

I'm going to start this with yet another criticsm of Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder's "Americans Show Clear Concerns on Bush Agenda" which ran on the front page of Tuesday's New York Times (scroll down for link, New York Times links to articles are only free to registered users for seven days -- meaning by Tuesday, November 30, 2004 you'll have to pay to view article). (Book reviews are free as far back as 1996.)

On Saturday the Times ran this story: "Spending Bill in Hand, Congress Departs" by Carl Hulse & Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports on the passage of the spending bill ( http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/21/politics/21congress.html) on page 18 of the print edition. (I mentioned it in the blog entry "It's just another day, another episode" under the heading "PRIVACY INVASIONS.") The story dealt with a number of issues in the spending bill but let's focus on one provision (that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says will get a seperate vote over "language" in the spring) (quoting from the article linked immediately above):

But its Republican authors said the action was warranted to prevent government agencies from forcing health care providers who oppose abortion to perform the procedure or counsel women seeking abortions.
"The right of conscience is fundamental to our American freedom," said Representative Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican who is the main architect of the provision.

This "right of conscience" has led to debates as to whether or not this gag rule could be extended to birth control medications. There are a number of questions about abortion in the poll (keeping abortion legal has more supporters than opponents among the respondents to question 36 -- 34% in the most recent poll say it should be "available"; 44% say it should be "available but stricter"; 21% say it should not be permitted; and 1% responded "DK/NA") but considering the current debate (as well as some real life events) I'd argue that this question and the polling results warrented a mention in the poll (this is my subjective opinion, Nagourney & Elder not including it doesn't mean they're "wrong" not to include it, just that it didn't stand out for whatever reason to them):

58. Should pharmacists who oppose birth control for religious reasons be able to refuse to sell birth control pills to women who have a prescription for them, or shouldn't pharmacists be able to refuse to sell birth control pills?

Should Should not DK/NA
11/18-21/04 16 78 6

This question isn't a pie-in-the-sky issue. This is happening in the real world right now.

Katha Pollitt noted it in "Down and Out in Texas" in the May 10, 2004 issue of The Nation:
"In Denton, an Eckerd pharmacist refused to fill a rape victim's prescription for emergency contraception, and a CVS pharmacist refused to refill a prescription for ordinary birth control pills" (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040510&s=pollitt).

And Laura Flanders addressed it in an article that originally ran in the November 15, 2004 issue of In These Times ( http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/reality_check/) and is also posted at AlterNet:

BBC News reports that 12 states have taken steps to introduce "conscience clauses" in their state legislatures, allowing pharmacists to refuse to dispense certain prescription drugs, including birth control, without risk of losing their jobs. In recent months, several pharmacists around the country have refused to fill prescriptions for the pill (http://www.alternet.org/rights/20285/).

There are a number of other questions and responses worthy of note. Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler has been focusing on David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal to attempt to illuminate the "flat tax" -- judging by some of the responses in the polling report, that's work that needs to be done (link to most recent column http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh112304.shtml which contains links to two other columns; the search engine can also be used to search "David Cay Johnston").

There's a lot of data in the poll report. Deciding which categories to include and which not to was a subjective decision made by Nagourney & Elder. There's no "wrong" or "right" there, they're attempting to summarize a poll (the report's 35 pages, in addition to that, there are at least some follow up interviews and who knows what else). That's not easy.

Having poured over the poll report for over fourteen hours now, I don't think it's easy. I do think, however, that other issues are open to discussion.

Issues such as confusing questions (scroll down to "Problems with the New York Times/CBS News poll"); declaring that "now" there is "some good news" when in fact you're commenting on a trend that can be traced back within the report itself and didn't develop in this latest poll is a problem (scroll down to "Where's the NOW in the poll as reported by Nagourney & Elder?"; using "evenly divided" when one side has a slight lead or combining some similar categories to increase some numbers some of the time, but not all, is a problem (scroll down to "2 is still greater than zero, right? Not in Nagourney & Elder's World"); and citing the response to only one question when there are two similar questions (data cited in print is the larger number) is a problem (scroll down "Nagourney & Elder see 55% & 54% but overlook 44% and 39%").

Those are the four troubling things I've cited and, sadly, I could go on with additional items.
But hopefully the point that there is a problem with the polling and with the summarization that appeared in print form as a story/article has been demonstrated.

The issue of the polling itself is not something I've addressed on the blog. But, let's be serious, can 885 people truly represent the entire United States? Could a survey of 885 New York City residents truly represent the diversity of opinions, beliefs, values, ethics, views of NYC? This note of caution is addressed in the sidebar on page A18 of Tuesday's New York Times. But as someone who majored in the social sciences and heard all the "psuedo science" jeers, I want to be clear that I do not think 885 people can represent the opinions of all Americans. It's a nice sample size, and it's workable, but we're talking about a nation of people here. Reading the data on the poll responders, one also wonders about the cross-section present and how representative it is or isn't. Apparently, landlines were used (Jimmy Breslin and Zogby both addressed the problems with that prior to the November election) and would people who only have cell phones have responded the same? Or as Arianna Huffington has pointed out (a problem in all polling) what about the people who don't answer their landline phones (always a problem, but more so now thanks to caller i.d. which allows for better screening of incoming calls)?

I've gotten more e-mail on these posts than I've ever gotten in an inbox even when one adds in junk mail. I appreciate all the feedback and I will respond to everyone though it's going to take a few days. I want to say thank you to Angie especially who e-mailed me that I spelled "Nagourney" as "Nogourney" in the title of one blog entry. You'll find many typos here and sadly, they aren't intentional. But this was a heading and someone's proper name in a heading so I was not only glad to correct it, I was really thankful to Angie for pointing out. Otherwise, I'm leaving the typos in. (And all quotes from the Times were typed as I looked at the print edition so I'm sure there's got to be some inverted letters at the very least. Those can stay. This is a blog, not the New York Times.)

I got one e-mail complaining from Frank in Orlando that I had an "axe to grind against the Times." I got many other e-mails telling me to let the Times have it.

The issue for me was (and remains) whether or not a poll conducted by the paper (and CBS News) was front page news? If it hadn't been on the front page, I wouldn't have given it the attention I did. Had Nagourney & Elder gone to city, suburb or rural area X and spoken to people directly to then write about their attitudes, opinions, et al, I wouldn't have been bothered by it being on the front page. But is there a way to cover a topic like this without a poll? And if the poll is done by the paper should it be on the front page (or is that the paper covering itself)?
I don't know. And I'm still getting feedback on that.

Polling is a primary tool for social scientists and, therefore, people need to use it accurately. That means coming up with clear questions and that means having a sample size that can represent the group you are polling to gain data on. (Again, I do not believe 885 people can represent all the people in the United States.)

I mentioned Bob Somerby before, I'm a Daily Howler reader. No, I'm a Daily Howler fan. I think he could have gone much deeper into the data and the way it was reported in the Times than I did. But my point was that there were problems with the polling and with the reporting of the polling and hopefully the four blog entries previous demonstrate that.

Frank in Orlando asked why I didn't focus on "all the good things the New York Times does?"
I did mention them, but no, I didn't focus on them. I doubt I will. Some might argue I expect too much from the New York Times. (I'd argue back that the 46 dollars a month they expect from me is a lot.) I offered up a subjective example at the top of this blog entry on what I thought could have been included in the reporting on the poll that was left out. That's subjective absolutely. The other issues I've raised go to the standards the Times is supposed to maintain and I don't feel that they did it with this story. Yes, there are "good" writers at the Times (and "good" editors, and good "assistants" and on up and down the line). Frank in Orlando feels I was "too hard on Adam who works really hard but just gets picked on by everybody and you can print that and anything else in this email." Nagourney's a journalist and his byline is on it (I honestly don't recognize Janet Elder's name -- no offense to Ms. Edler). When questions were raised about the memos used on 60 Minutes II, Dan Rather had to face criticism because his name was "on" that piece. I've not debated whether Nagourney is of the left or the right, whether he's got an axe to grind against America or not, his looks, his favorite music or food. I have questioned his and Ms. Elder's math skills. But even there, I went by what they published versus what the polling report stated.

Frank in Orlando (and I'm focusing on him here because he was the only one who objected and because he said his name could be used and "you can call me Frank in Orlando") also felt that Nagourney has a tough job. Hey, no argument here. Going through the polling report was no picnic. Trying to convey what I saw on the printed page of the paper versus what I saw in the polling report wasn't easy. (And I'm sure it wasn't easy to read.) Maybe Nagourney & Elder had a bad day? Everyone can have a bad day. Or maybe I'm full of ___ and my points are completely meaningless? (Could be.)

If Frank in Orlando read the polling report (he stated he wasn't going to "ever") or if the others who e-mailed were all reading it (some mentioned they were), they might have seen my conclusions differently. They might have felt I was completely off base. Wouldn't be the first time. I don't think I'm "the heart of all evil" as Frank in Orlando maintains but I've been wrong before. Nor do I think there was anything "heroic" in blogging on this subject (though it's always nice to hear a compliment even when you know it's undeserved). I enjoyed all the e-mails I've read thus far (including Frank's) and, again, I'm working on replies.

Some of you will get "re: ____ see blog" referring to this entry because I'm trying to address the questions or comments that came up the most frequently. (You'll get more than just that in replies for those still waiting.)

No, the blog's not just about the New York Times. I can understand the question being asked.
Ideally there would be a daily mention of the front page of the Times because it does impact what the TV media covers (or did until I stopped watching TV regularly). "The New York Times is reporting" -- how many times have you heard that on a cable or network broadcast prefacing a "report?" With cutbacks and budgeting issues (read Bonnie M. Anderson's book News Flash, it's really worth reading), broadcast relies more and more on the work done by others. Watch the "news report" segment on the national news and see if you don't notice that a story from the Times or the Washington Post or another paper is "fleshed out" with a talking head or two but is basically the same story you read in the print version (or online). (Give or take an unnamed source.) So the Times does "matter" in terms of setting the agenda. It's often the playbook many are working from.

I noted a story on Democracy Now! today (and that they were broadcasting from Spain, next they go to Italy) and before I took the Times out of the blue wrapper Tuesday morning, I intended to discuss a story in Clamour magazine at some point today.

As for the Times itself, three people asked if I thought the rest of the paper was perfect? No.
The Book Review (which I think is still being retooled and I have yet to embrace the new "look" of the cover) often disappoints me when reviewers write about a book they've read but I've read the same book and something they're saying should have been in the book is in the book. That's one example. I do think books and arts are important but with the Times I've focused on the front page (for reasons listed above). I really have no desire at this time to focus on the op-eds. Factual errors do occur in the op-eds and some columnists are better at corrections than others but they're writing their opinions and I don't want to nit-pick over an op-ed when there are other things (including non-Times stories) that I'd like to comment on. (That said, I'm sure at some point I'll comment on op-eds. Watch, it'll be tomorrow. Who's tomorrow, now today? Thomas Friedman. I'll skip him tomorrow/today to make sure I don't comment on him!)

I'd also like to comment on NPR (believe me, I'd like to comment on NPR) among other media outlets. And I'd hoped to quote a passage from Howard Zinn's Voices of a People's History of the United States. Which, by the way, Tammy in Ohio recommended Monday as a book that should be added to the list of twelve (and growing) that would make a good Christmas gift: Howard Zinn & Anthony Arnove's Voices of People's History of the United States. And Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace is the next book I intend to read (just picked it up at the bookstore tonight when I needed a break from the polling report and the article on it) and I'm guessing I'd like to comment on that as well.

But the focus of this blog won't be Hardball or The Spin Factor or World News Tonight. Not while worthwhile stories are running in The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, Ms., Mother Jones, Clamour and assorted other magazines. Or while Laura Flanders is giving us so many interesting (and often under reported) stories on The Laura Flanders Show. Or while Democracy Now!, buzzflash (Maureen Farrell has another strong column http://www.buzzflash.com/farrell/04/11/far04040.html), Media Channel, AlterNet, FAIR, etc. are around.

There's a lot of information and comments people are sharing re: e-mail regarding the "red" states and if not Wednesday, I'll be doing a post on that Thursday. (And thanks to Natalie and Ty for the Ty's Unfiltered blog comments today.) (I will be replying to you Natalie, there just wasn't enough time today.)

Right now there's a delay in responding but I will respond (with a non-automated response) and you can comment (gripe, scream, agree, whatever) at common_ills@yahoo.com and I'll read it. (Frank in Orlando didn't scream, since I've already stated his name, I want to be clear on that.
I don't know how you could scream in e-mail other than with a lot of "!!!!"s, but he didn't scream. He was disappointed in the comments on the Nagourney & Elder piece.)

Lastly to Janet and S.S. & C.W., no, I haven't stopped opening with the lines to a song, I just didn't have time today.

[Note: 7-17-05, this entry has been corrected to fix the spelling of David Cay Johnston's name. Not "David Kay Johnson." My apologies for my error. Thanks to the visitor who e-mailed to point it out.]