Whenever newspapers publish findings of their latest poll, they try to persuade us that the poll is honest, conducted without bias, and scientific. The obligatory blurb goes something like this: “Results are based on phone interviews with X adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan 6-8. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus X points.”
If a name like Harris, Pew or Gallup is involved, you have confidence there is only one goal: Inform the public. The pollsters have too much to lose to cook the books.
But what if the pollsters are biased -- determined to get a result consistent with their agenda? It is vital to know who writes the questions, decides when to poll, and determines whether or not to release the results.
In Wisconsin, St. Norbert’s College polling is used by public radio and public TV. And now we also have the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute/University of Wisconsin-Madison poll -- a “partnership” between right-wing WPRI and our great state university’s political science department. Whoa, Nelly! The institute apparently needed credibility to persuade people to pay attention to the Bradley Foundation poll, so it is easy to figure out its goal in creating this “partnership”: instant credibility. (No one has ever accused WPRI of neutrality on issues of importance to the Bradley Foundation.) In essence the institute rents the good name of the UW.
OK. The institute gets credibility. How about the UW?
Fightingbob.com asked the UW for all memos, e-mails, contracts between UW and WPRI under the Wisconsin open records law. What we got was shocking.
• The political science department signed a Memorandum of Understanding with WPRI agreeing that the poll results will not be subject to the “open records laws of the state of Wisconsin or any other rules of the university.” Since when can the university grant an exemption from state laws?
• The UW confirmed in an e-mail that the polling data belong to WPRI and the institute will decide when to release poll results.
• UW agreed with a change in the wording of a UW-drafted question on vouchers. In an e-mail to the university from the institute’s executive director, George Lightbourn: “I’ve removed the phrase ‘taxpayer-funded’ in describing vouchers -- this is a lightning rod for us.” “Us” is the Bradley Foundation, not the UW.
• How will the public learn the results? In an e-mail from Lightbourn to the chair of the poli sci department: “We have arranged for the Journal Sentinel to have Dave Umhoefer (a Pulitzer Prize winner) do the news story.” Why would the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel agree? Lightbourn explains: “Our deal with JS is that only JS and WSJ will get briefed.” JS and the Wisconsin State Journal were given the polling results before other journalists, including the Associated Press.
• Who has final say over the wording of questions? Unbelievable but true: WPRI.
• JS education columnist Alan Borsuk, longtime cheerleader for school vouchers, received questions in advance from UW with a query from the political science department: “Do these questions do it for you?”
Next time you see a WPRI/UW-Madison poll, you will understand there may be greater interest in spin than substance. Ask the Journal Sentinel why it would permit a Bradley Foundation front to name which reporter will cover a story.
And ask UW Chancellor Biddy Martin if this passes her smell test.