Magazine article The American Prospect

John Zogby's Creative Polls: And a Closer Look at His Methods

Magazine article The American Prospect

John Zogby's Creative Polls: And a Closer Look at His Methods

Article excerpt

IN A RECENT NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE COVER STORY about animal rights, journalist Michael Pollan reported that 51 percent of Americans believe that "primates are entitled to the same rights as human children." It was a surprising finding, but one that Pollan simply attributed to a "recent Zogby Poll." When Pollan's article came out, you can only imagine the celebration at the Doris Day Animal League, a group dedicated to establishing legal rights for chimpanzees. The league's role in commissioning the survey went entirely unmentioned in the Times story. By hiring the renowned pollster John Zogby, the group had essentially purchased an objective fact, one that entered into the conventional wisdom via the nation's leading Sunday magazine.

Whomever you blame for this small propaganda coup, it's hardly unique. Media coverage of polling results often neglects to mention the self-interestedness of the sponsor, and John Zogby is a leading enabler. Today, Zogby International's polling reputation may be second only to that of. the hallowed Gallup Organization, which makes having a Zogby Poll extremely desirable for advocacy groups across the political spectrum. Animal rights is a lefty cause, but one recent Zogby Poll conducted for the libertarian Cato Institute found that "two-thirds of likely voters support personal Social Security accounts"--i.e., partial privatization. Another, conducted in 1997 for the anti-tort group New Yorkers for Civil Justice Reform, found that Empire State citizens "overwhelmingly believe that the cost of lawsuit awards is too high." And a Newsmax.com/Zogby International Poll, conducted for the right-wing Newsmax Web site, found in late 1999 that two-thirds of Americans wanted Congress to consider a second impeachment proceeding against then-President Clinton. It helped that the poll primed respondents with speculative allegations that the president traded nuclear technology to the Chinese in exchange for campaign cash.

What these polls have in common is that they reveal "findings" that their sponsors wish the public to believe as facts. And Zogby's standing as a reputable pollster buys instant credibility.

There's nothing new about dubious surveys: An infamous Roper Poll released in 1992 came to the wild conclusion that 3.7 million Americans had likely been abducted by aliens. And Zogby International isn't the only firm available for advocacy groups, candidates and corporations in need of creatively framed findings and message testing. But among high-profile pollsters, Zogby is unusual in the extent to which he has blended partisan and interest-group polling with credibility-enhancing contracts for media outlets such as Reuters, NBC News, MSNBC, and numerous newspapers and television stations.

As Zogby himself acknowledges, the repute he derives from media polling helps him sell his services to more self-interested clients. The lucky groups end up with the Zogby brand name attached to findings that advance their agendas. "Media organizations should have people who absolutely aren't polling for interest groups," observes Robert Blendon, who directs Harvard University's Program on Public Opinion and Health and Social Policy. Blendon notes that most major media polling conglomerates, such as the ABC News/Washington Post Poll, maintain firewalls between their work and outside interests.

Frequent Zogby collaborator John K. White of The Catholic University of America believes the pollster does his best to divine what the public really thinks, but, as Zogby himself concedes, the ultimate decision on whether to make public a particular poll rests with his clients. By contrast, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press notes that when he was president of the Gallup Organization, clients who sought surveys for public-relations purposes had to release the results no matter what they showed.

Gallup likewise doesn't work for political candidates. …

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