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Montana newspapers cry foul; say D.C. pollster, without notifying them, allowed Republican Party to add questions with a political slant to their survey.

FOUR MONTANA DAILIES are crying foul over the action of their Washington, D.C., pollster in allowing the Republican Party to piggyback on their poll with questions that the papers say struck at their accuracy and credibility.

"We got burned," Billings Gazette editor Richard Wesnick told E&P. "A shadow of doubt has been cast on our accuracy."

It happened this way, according to Wesnick and Chuck Johnson, bureau manager of the Montana Lee Newspapers group in the state capital at Helena: The Gazette, Missoula Missoulian, Helena Independent Record and the Montana Standard in Butte recently joined in commissioning Political/Media Research Inc. (PMR) in Washington for a poll of 836 Montana voters on their state and national candidate preferences in the 1996 elections.

The four had used PMR, a pollster for many newspapers, for the past six years with highly satisfactory results, Wesnick recalled.

Johnson said Del Ali, a PMR partner, helped the newspapers formulate some of the questions.

But what the Montana papers didn't know, Johnson stated, was the fact that the polling firm allowed the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), headed by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), to add its own questions to the list -- questions that appeared to have a GOP spin.

The main concern of the newspapers was a GOP query concerning opinions about Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. Respondents were asked: "Do you think that Senator Baucus has performed well enough as U.S. senator to deserve re-election, or do you think it's time to give a new person a chance to do better?" Only 34% favored Baucus, while 51% opted for a "new person," and 14% were undecided, NRSC announced.

The response apparently was gratifying to D'Amato's group. On May 3, it issued a press release with the headline, "NRSC on new polls: Baucus now most vulnerable '96 Dem."

The handout went on:"'The results of Lee Newspaper and NRSC polls show Max Baucus is barely breathing and clearly on life support,' said John D. Heubusch, executive director of NRSC. 'Max Baucus is now the most vulnerable 1966 Senate Democrat and weaker than both Senators [Paul] Wellstone and [Carl] Levin,'" Democrats from Minnesota and Michigan, respectively.

Two days earlier, NRSC sent out a news release with similar content but without mentioning Lee Newspapers.

It was the second press release, rather than the piggybacking itself that rankled the Montana newspapers. The GOP denied any wrongdoing.

"Those weren't our questions," Johnson wrote in a May 5 column headed "News poll abused by pollster, GOP clients."

"Unknown to us ... the National Republican Senatorial Committee paid Ali a separate fee to 'piggyback' two of its own questions on our poll, which we pay for separately," he wrote. "We had never been told that Ali routinely piggybacks questions on our polls and all others he does. We assumed it was our poll and our poll only."

In one Lee question, voters were asked to rate the popularity of Baucus and other state public figures. He received a 39% "favorable recognition," compared to 71% for his probable opponent.

Baucus' performance as senator got a 7% "excellent" rating, 43% "good," 28% "fair" and 10% "poor" in the Lee poll. "We thought our questions were fair and objective," Johnson said in the interview.

He reported that the Republican news release also drew complaints from Baucus' pollster and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which questioned the reliability of the GOP results. The columnist wrote that Lee Newspapers "may have been burned by their own poll, and we intend to take steps to make sure it never happens again. Just the fact that the GOP got in on our poll raises doubts about it."

He reported that Ali was "livid" because the NRSC allegedly violated an oral agreement he had with the group for years not to publicly release the results, using them only internally.

Johnson quoted Ali as saying: "I'm hopping mad about it. The problem is the way they released it. It looks like all three of us wrote the press release."

Ali said further there is a "serious communication problem" with the GOP group, Johnson disclosed. In a May 8 letter faxed to Johnson, NRSC director Heubusch denied breaking any agreement with PMR. He said the GOP group had pledged not to release its poll numbers until Lee Newspapers published its poll findings and kept that promise.

Heubusch said NRSC even asked the Lee papers when they would be running their story -- "an extra effort on our part to ensure we did not preempt the poll story that Lee ran through Montana."

Heubusch defended the Republicans' interpretation of the survey figures, adding: "To Sen. Baucus and his pollster, we say, 'Don't blame the polling firm, Lee Newspapers or the Republicans for your bad poll numbers; blame your liberal record.'"

Gordon Hensley, NRSC's communications director, told E&P its press release was timed to coincide with the publication cycle of the Lee papers. That's just good, aggressive public relations," he said. "Timing is crucial in political campaigns."

However, Wesnick said: "We got hit right between the eyes. He [Ali] should not have allowed anyone to piggyback on our poll. Obviously, we got burned, but so did PMR."

The editor said he and the editors of the other three Lee papers will meet soon to discuss whether they will continue to employ PMR.

Billings Gazette publisher Wayne Schile said that "it is not unusual for pollsters to load a second organization onto the poll of the original client to cut costs for the latter.

"But we were not told that the Republicans were piggybacking on our questionnaire, and how its results would be used," Schile went on.

Reached by phone, Ali said he was "pissed off" by the reaction of the Montana papers, Baucus' pollster and the DSCC to the poll.

"I'm not anybody's punching bag," he continued. "Sure, I was mad about the press release, and the Lee newspapers have a right to be mad about it. But how on earth anybody could think that the Lee results were skewed by the Republican questions is beyond me. There was nothing deceitful. I don't give a damn who wins in Montana. I live in Maryland."

Ali said his organization, whose clients include Thomson newspapers, the Baltimore Sun, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Francisco Examiner and several other papers and broadcasters, often piggybacks one customer's poll on another's but always informs the first client of the fact.

"Who the second client is is none of their business," he added. Ali asserted that piggybacking is a common practice among pollsters.

"It helps pay the bill for the first client," he explained. "If any poll company tells you differently, they're either liars or they're not making phone calls," he said. "This is a business. I'm not in it for the good of mankind."

Ali defended the fairness of the GOP question about Baucus' performance, but allowed that another question about whether respondents would vote for "any other" candidate besides Baucus could be construed as slanted. "After all, God could be running against him," he reasoned.

Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Organization and a board member of the National Council on Public Polls, said Gallup's policy is not to piggyback questions without the agreement of the initial client.

"But," he went on, "the more important question is, Was the integrity of the results reported to Montana readers compromised in any way?" Normally, Newport said, questions that follow the original questions do not affect the first set.

"The questions likely to be compromised are the second set, because the respondent has been carried through the first ones," he said. "But the whole act of whether you piggyback questions on a marketing research poll is more of a business or ethical issue -- not a matter that affects the results."

Newport said he does not believe there is a generally accepted policy among pollsters on piggybacking.

"Each firm would make its own policy," he stated. "We definitely would tell the client that 'at no cost to you we are going to ask some questions of our own' and get his permission."

On the other hand, if a client wants a "stand-alone" survey and is willing to pay the extra amount for it, that is his option, Newport said.

Wayne Danielson of the department of journalism at the University of Texas, which conducts the Texas Poll for Harte-Hanks Communications Inc., said the arrangement includes an understanding that the poll does not work for any political organization.

However, he said, a survey for Harte-Hanks newspapers may include research questions for a university department such as political science.

"But we always consult Harte-Hanks first to let them know what's going in the poll and where it's coming from," Danielson said.

Danielson, chairman of the university's Office of Survey Research, said, "if the Montana papers were not told in advance of the Republican addition to its poll, I can understand why they are upset."
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Author:Stein, M.L.
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:May 20, 1995
Words:1493
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