Health Care For America Now (HCAN) argues that a change in the NBC/Wall Street Journal's wording of a key poll question about health care reform produces skewed results.
In June, the NBC/WSJ poll asked:
In any health care proposal, how important do you feel it is to give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance--extremely important, quite important, not that important, or not at all important?
76 percent said it was extremely or quite important to include such a plan in health care reform.
In July, NBC and the Journal changed their wording:
Would you favor or oppose creating a public health care plan administered by the federal government that would compete directly with private health insurance companies?
That produced a much more negative response. There are indications that the new NBC/WSJ out this evening will repeat that July wording, with similar results.
Here's HCAN's take, backed up by quotes from two pollsters:
These polls are not comparable. The first poll (June) accurately framed the question - should people be able to choose a public health insurance option. The second poll (July and August) pushed them towards an answer by leaving out the essential question of choice and asking a yes or no question.
On Hardball earlier this evening, NBC's Chuck Todd claimed that they changed the wording because the word "choice" "biased" the question.
Todd didn't explain what is "biased" about describing a plan that offers people a choice between a public plan and private insurance as offering a choice between a public plan and private insurance.
Aside from the absurdity of describing the original question as "biased," it is important to note that the first question frames the topic of a public plan in terms of its effect on consumers -- it indicates that they would have a choice between a public plan and private insurance. The new wording frames it in terms of the plan's effect on private insurance companies by emphasizing that they would face competition. The new wording is only passingly about consumers.
It should come as no surprise that a poll question that adopts the insurance companies' point of view yields results less favorable for a public plan than one that focuses on the impact on consumers.
UPDATE: NBC posts a response -- sort of:
NBC pollsters Peter Hart (D) and Bill McInturff (R) released the following statement: "The only agenda that we have is to accurately measure changes in public opinion. To that end, we selected two questions which we think are the best barometers of how and if attitudes on health care are changing in view of the robust public debate that is occurring."
Peter Hart and Bill McInturff have forgotten more about polling than most of us will ever learn -- but their response is, well, non-responsive. First, they make no effort at all to defend the new wording, or to explain why they think it is better than the old. Second, if you're trying to measure "changes in public opinion," it helps to have a consistent question to track over time.
It should also be noted that NBC's Chuck Todd and Mark Murray misrepresent the wording change in their introduction to the Hart/McInturff statement:
Liberals and progressives -- including Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and the group Health Care for America Now -- have raised questions why our poll measured whether Americans supported the "choice" of a public/government option in June, while in July and this month it removed "choice" and simply asked whether Americans favor or oppose the option.
The July and August polls didn't simply remove the word "choice," as Todd and Murray claim. It completely changed the perspective of the question, as I explained above. The original question focused on impact on the consumer; the new question ignores that in favor of a focus on impact on insurance companies.
NBC's Chuck Todd, a few minutes into a discussion with Chris Matthews about health care polling:
When you actually give them the president's plan, a majority approve of it, when you lay it out.
Well, that would seem to be a pretty key point, wouldn't it? That polling showing a lack of support for health care reform is based on a lack of understanding of it, and when it is spelled out for people, they approve of reform?
And yet Matthews and Todd quickly moved on, with Matthews asking why Democrats don't just give up already and pass whatever Chuck Grassley and Joe Lieberman want. Matthews doesn't seem to think the policy merits matter, doesn't seem to think informed public opinion matters -- he just wants Congress to pass a bill with the words "health care" in it.
This is a little old, but it's a valuable glimpse at how committed the media elite is to the idea that both the Left and the Right are equally guilty of whatever sins are relevant at any given moment -- and into the consistent failure of the media to accurately describe the Right's approach to public policy. Here's the New York Times' Gail Collins a few weeks ago:
I like partisanship. What I don't like, and what nobody likes, is the brain-dead variety we see in Congress where the minority party would rather make a bill worse in the hopes that it would fail than make it better in case it passes. So the Republicans make it impossible for the Democrats to put cost controls in the health care plan by howling "rationing!" And back when the Democrats were in the minority, they made sure that any attempt to contain the cost of entitlements was immediately branded "destruction of Social Security."
As Matthew Yglesias explained last week, the Bush administration was described as trying to destroy Social Security because ... it was trying to destroy Social Security.
But don't take Yglesias' word for it, or mine. The Bush administration itself admitted their proposals were not about improving the solvency of the Social Security system. They admitted it would have no effect whatsoever on solvency.
And yet Gail Collins clings to the notion that Republicans were simply trying to "contain the cost of entitlements," and "brain-dead" Democrats unfairly accused them of trying to destroy Social Security.
There's something brain-dead in all this, but it isn't Democrats' opposition to Bush's Social Security schemes. It's the knee-jerk assumption that both sides must be equally guilty of everything; it's the blind faith -- in the face of all evidence to the contrary, including their own admissions -- that the Republicans were simply trying to ensure Social Security's solvency. They weren't. They were trying to dismantle it. It didn't have anything to do with solvency. They even said so!
The Western Journalism Center -- the recently reconstituted right-wing group best known for perpetuating Vince Foster conspiracy theories during the Clinton administration -- has posted a video titled "Rachel Maddow Lies about MoveON.org," which purports to debunk Maddow's claim during the August 16 edition of "Meet the Press" that MoveOn never ran an ad comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler.
But the WJC is the liar here. While the video includes a clip of something that appears to be a MoveOn ad comparing Bush to Hitler, at no point does the video note that it was submitted as part of a contest MoveOn ran in 2004 and never ran as a paid ad by MoveOn. Indeed, MoveOn specifically stated of that submission and a second similar one, "They will not appear on TV. We do not support the sentiment expressed in the two Hitler submissions." MoveOn later removed the ad from its website.
Most folks wouldn't have the courage to roll out such a ham-fisted piece of blatantly false agitprop, so the WJC has that going for it.
Howard Kurtz, the most influential media critic in all the land, thinks media coverage of health care has been just dandy:
Alexandria, Va.: Overall, I think the fabled mainstream media has done a great job covering protests and opinions on both sides of the health-care debate, but they get a D- on presenting an overall, easy to understand what it all means. I've been disappointed that controversy, over detailed analysis wins yet again. Sorry, those multiple Web links to copies of the bill don't help. This should be a major national debate, but overall, the coverage is too much flash and not enough substance.
Howard Kurtz: I'm going to partially disagree. If you look at the major newspapers, and the recent Time cover story, there has been a lot of detailed substance published about almost every aspect of the health care debate: public option, Medicare reimbursement, industry lobbying, end-of-life counseling, you name it. It's out there. It's not hard to find.
As Eric noted earlier, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence In Journalism found that recent health care coverage has focused overwhelmingly on politics and protests, and 70 percent of Americans say the media has done a fair or poor job of explaining the details of health care proposals.
But Howard Kurtz says the media has done a fine job, so don't worry if the public has mostly seen stories about yelling and screaming, and doesn't think the media have explained the policy details.
I know it's only Tuesday, but this has to be the lamest allegation of media bias you'll see all week. Here's Newsbusters' Rich Noyes:
Gibson Worries: 'Will Obama Go to the Mat for a Public Option?'
August 18, 2009 - 11:40 ET
On Monday's World News, ABC's Charles Gibson channeled the worry of liberal activists over the Obama administration's seeming retreat on government-run health insurance, the so-called "public option." Gibson fretted about Obama to White House correspondent Jake Tapper: "Will he go to the mat for a public option?"
Was Gibson really "worrying" or "channeling" or "fretting"? Uh, no. He was asking a question. Asking the rather obvious question, actually. Here's the exchange in question:
JAKE TAPPER: The White House says the President has not backed off anything, he still thinks the public plan is the best way to do this, but he has not drawn any lines in the sand.
CHARLES GIBSON: But will he go to the mat for a public option? He says now it's just a sliver of health care reform. But earlier he said it's a lot more than that.
Pretty unremarkable. Yet Noyes sees it as evidence of ... something.
That's what PoliticsDaily.com claims:
The pressure on advertisers has become a politically charged debate about the right to free speech, censorship and what constitutes hate speech.
That's a rather dramatic, misinformed, and GOP-friendly spin to the put on the unfolding story. Do editors at PoliticsDaily.com not understand what "censorship" means in terms of free speech? Because if they did they certainly wouldn't use it in connection to an advertising boycott story. (Of course, only the government can censor free speech.)
The outlines of the story are pretty simple. Glenn Beck said some hateful things on his Fox News show and activists began contacting advertisers urging them not to be associated with that kind of hate. To date, nearly two dozen companies have pulled their ads off Beck's show.
If PoliticsDaily.com wants to take another stab at it, we'd sure love to hear how any of that is even remotely connected to "censorship" and questions of "free speech." Because as of right now, Beck has the right to say whatever he wants on his show. And advertisers have the right not to support him.
Where's the "censorship"?
Newsbusters' Tom Blumer sees some kind of liberal media conspiracy of silence in the lack of media coverage of a Gallup poll finding that more people self-identify as "conservative" than "liberal" at the state level as well as nationally. Blumer seems to think this finding has great significance, though Gallup provides no historical data for comparison, so we don't know which way things are trending.
And, as I've mentioned a time or two in the past, such labels are so imprecise and meaningless to many if not most Americans that these self-ID questions are of limited value. Indeed, the Gallup poll itself provides evidence that these questions don't mean much: Gallup finds that even in Massachusetts and Vermont more people self-identify as "conservative" than "liberal."
But Blumer thinks this one-off poll that is quite consistent with years and years worth of national-level polling is hugely important. Maybe that's because he doesn't really "get" how polling works. Here's Blumer:
The margins may not be "statistically significant," but the reported result still shows conservatives on top in HI (+5), VT (+1) and MA (+1). I also have to wonder how you can have a 5-point or more margin of error in a poll of 160,000 people. [Emphasis added]
Wonder no longer, Blumer:
Results are based on telephone interviews with 160,236 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 2-June 30, 2009, as part of Gallup Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point.
The margin of sampling error for most states is ±3 percentage points, but is as high as ±7 percentage points for the District of Columbia, and ±6 percentage points for Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, and Hawaii.
That little bit of explanation was carefully hidden in the Gallup article Blumer linked to and quoted. On the first page. Under the heading "Survey Methods." A heading that was presented in bold font.
From Jonah Goldberg's August 18 column in the Los Angeles Times:
Imagine if President George W. Bush, in his effort to partially privatize Social Security, had insisted that the "time for talking is over." Picture, if you will, the Bush White House asking Americans to turn in their e-mails, in the pursuit of "fishy" dissent. Conjure a scenario under which then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) derided critics as "evil-mongers" the way Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently described town hall protesters. Or if then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) had called vocal critics "un-American" the way Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) did last week, or if White House strategist Karl Rove had been Sir Spam-a-lot instead of David Axelrod.
The good news is that the topic of health care reform was, by far, the most covered topic in the news media last week, according to Journalism.org. It was a landslide.
Cable news barely covered any other topic last week:
That's good, right? The country's having a robust discussion about an important public policy issue, right?
Yeah, not quite. Also from Journalism.org [emphasis added]:
Last week's coverage of the proposed health care legislation was overwhelmingly focused on the two p's—politics and protests. Those two storylines accounted for about three-quarters of the overall coverage of the subject.
So much for a public policy discussion. Wonder if that media obsession with the three p's (politics, protests and process) has anything to do with the fact that most Americans think the health care coverage debate has been rather abysmal.
A Pew Research survey earlier this month found:
The public gives news organizations low marks for their coverage of health care. More than seven-in-ten say the media has done either a poor (40%) or only fair (32%) job explaining details of the various proposals. Just 21% offer a positive rating of this coverage: 4% excellent and 17% good.