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All the News That's Fit to Spin

The New York Times outdoes itself as editorial creep continues across the front page of the paper.

12:00 AM, Oct 8, 2002 • By DAVID TELL
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THE NEW YORK TIMES has lately come under a barrage of media criticism, not all of it from "the right," about the extent to which editorial bias has infected the paper's hard news columns. And already some of that criticism has been directed specifically against the paper's A-section reporting on its own, proprietary public opinion research (commissioned in partnership with CBS News). So what I'm about to offer isn't exactly without precedent. The bias in question, however, may well be without precedent; I can't remember anything quite like it, at least. "Poll Says Bush Needs to Pay Heed to Weak Economy," written up by Times correspondents Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder, and awarded pride of place--the front-page lede--in yesterday morning's edition, isn't just slanted (or misleading or imbalanced or overstated or any other word commonly applied to such things). The story is an outright fraud, a falsehood, a work of fiction.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. In their most recent effort to limn what the "public says," Times/CBS News researchers have surveyed 668 Americans (over three days, October 3-5). And from the resulting Times story, you'd think all 668 of those Americans have said the same thing, over and over again. "Public Says Bush . . ." has a single theme, introduced immediately in the sub-heds ("Many Fear Loss of Jobs; Poll Finds Lawmakers Focusing Too Much on Iraq and Too Little on Issues at Home") and then hammered away relentlessly over the 33 paragraphs--plus boxed chart--that follow.

"A majority of Americans say [sic] that . . . President Bush and congressional leaders are spending too much time talking about Iraq while neglecting problems at home," Nagourney and Elder advise us in their first sentence. No hard numbers in support of this judgment appear on page one, but just before the story makes its jump to page A14, we do get to meet 42-year-old Gladys Steele of Seattle, identified as a "politically independent" homemaker. Ms. Steele, speaking as Everywoman, apparently, says "Bush is spending way too much time focusing on Iraq instead of the economy, and he's doing it as a political move."

After the jump, Nagourney and Elder remind us that Democrats have "grown glum about the upcoming election," imagining that the Bush White House has "successfully drowned out domestic issues"--read: Democratic issues--with all this talk of war. "But," the authors continue, the new Times/CBS poll "suggests" that voters are actually "more concerned about the economy and domestic issues than with what is happening with Saddam Hussein, presenting the Democrats a glimmer of hope." Here, too, no statistical substantiation is offered for this conclusion, though we're led to believe one does exist: "On a number of measures, the poll suggested that politicians in Washington were out of step with the concerns of Americans. Again and again, in questions and in follow-up interviews, respondents talked more about the economy than Baghdad and expressed concern that leaders in Washington were not paying enough attention to the issues that mattered to them."

Along with Gladys Steele, Nagourney and Elder mention two other Americans who think Congress and the president should de-emphasize foreign policy in favor of home-front economic security. Michael Chen, a 30-year-old independent in Beaverton, Oregon, says "There is no balance right now. . . . No one is talking about how to solve the economic downfall." And another independent, 44-year-old Geoff Crooks of Lincoln, Nebraska, says "We are paying way too much attention to Iraq."

That's it. Three named poll respondents who believe Washington policymaking is shortchanging economic matters in favor of the war on terrorism. And two New York Times reporters (seconded by their headline-writing editors) who say a "majority of Americans" agrees with those respondents. But nowhere in 33 paragraphs is there a single corroborating reference to a single statistical breakdown of answers to a single specific question in the Times/CBS poll. Which, after all, is what the entire story pretends to be about.

Odd, no?

The Times appears disinclined to help anybody look into this mystery; its website simply reprints the Nagourney/Elder story without elaboration. But CBS News, which has reported the same poll with a great deal more circumspection, and therefore has less to be embarrassed about, has posted the survey's entire script--along with all the relevant raw numbers (readers with Adobe Acrobat software can see for themselves here . And those numbers, it turns out, say the New York Times has . . . well, lied about its own public opinion research. Three particular subsets of data make this harsh verdict especially hard to avoid:

Question Three. "What do you think is the single most important problem for the government--that is, the president and Congress--to address in the coming year?" Nagourney and Elder write that voters answered they are "more concerned about the economy and domestic issues than with what is happening to Saddam Hussein." In fact, however, Times/CBS poll respondents identified "Terrorism/War/Security" as the one "most important problem" facing government (30 percent), with "Economy/Jobs/Stock Market" ranking second (26 percent). And even this result understates the truth: Listed third among the responses is an additional foreign policy category, "Iraq" (7 percent)--which means that voters principally concerned with international matters outnumber those who prefer to think about issues that "Democrats had hoped to capitalize on" by an almost 3-to-2 margin.

Question Eighteen. "Which of these should be the higher priority for the nation right now--the economy and jobs, or terrorism and national security?" This, of course, is simply a forced-choice restatement of the more open-ended Question Three, above. And its results therefore speak more directly to the conclusion suggested by the Times' front-page sub-hed: "Poll Finds Lawmakers Focusing Too Much on Iraq and Too Little on Issues at Home." Trouble is, Question Eighteen's results flatly contradict that sub-hed. A full 50 percent of respondents said terrorism should be a higher priority than the economy. And only 35 percent said the opposite--again, a nearly 3-to-2 preference for foreign policy.

Question Twenty-Nine. "In deciding how to spend their time, presidents have to weigh the importance of foreign policy problems and problems here at home. Given the importance of each, do you think George W. Bush has been spending too much time on foreign policy problems, OR too much time on problems here at home, OR has he been spending his time about right?" According to the Times, which ran it as a five-column headline across the top of page A14 yesterday, the answer is clear: "Public Says Bush Needs to Pay More Heed to Economy, Less to Iraq." Unfortunately, though, Actual Results Prove Times Account of Poll Dishonest. A majority of respondents (52 percent) told Times/CBS researchers they think the president is dividing his attention "about right" and another two percent complained that Bush spends too much time on domestic issues. Only 41 percent of respondents said they think the president overemphasizes foreign policy. Among key, swing-voting independents, the trend is even starker: 58 percent of respondents said they believe the president devotes enough or too much effort to domestic questions, while just 35 percent complained that he is neglecting them.

All the news that fits the spin. And the rest in a PDF file on the CBS News website where, with any luck, nobody will notice it.

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.