Radical Transparency at Daily Kos

Blog owns up to inaccurate polling

In 2007, Wired published an issue that focused on the emergence of “radical transparency” in business.

“Get Naked and Rule the World,” it declared. The subhead for one of its major features declared, “Fire the publicist. Go off message. Let all your employees blab and blog. In the new world of radical transparency, the path to business success is clear.”

There was even an article that used Dunder Mifflin, the fictional paper company featured on NBC’s The Office, as a case study in openness. “Because in this new era of radical transparency, the way you sell paper is by showing the world that you’re not above getting reamed,” it advised.

Well, what’s good for the boardroom is also good for the newsroom. And that’s why Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos stepped up this week to get reamed. Here’s the opening sentence of a blog post he published on Tuesday, detailing the implications of an independent review of polls published on his Web site:

I have just published a report by three statistics wizards showing, quite convincingly, that the weekly Research 2000 State of the Nation poll we ran the past year and a half was likely bunk.

Writing at Salon, Dan Gillmor said:

If there’s a Mother of All Corrections, this comes pretty close. When the proprietor of a well-known and widely followed media organization brings something this awful to the attention of his audience, and in such a forceful and prominent way, he’s doing something fairly rare — and noteworthy.

Perhaps the best measure of an organization’s commitment to transparency is to see what it does when things go wrong. Does it clam up and dribble out useless, incomplete information? Or will it embrace the brutal side of being open, warts and all? It’s much easier to be transparent with information that seems neutral or positive; true transparency is all about what you do when things go awry. Will you hold the line or retreat into the shadows?

Moulitsas made the right decision, and now he’ll have to weather the inevitable storm that comes his way for prominently displaying research that turned out to be useless. One comment (or “letter,” as Salon deems them) on Gillmor’s post does a good job of pointing out the error of Moulitsas’s ways:

The REAL issue here, that the author is avoiding, is not that R2K provided faulty data. It’s that Kos didn’t do proper due dilligence on his poll provider, and passed on the faulty polls to his readers for over a year. That is unforgiveable. Perhaps Kos won’t be so smug in the future about the research that formal news organizations engage in. Fact checking is part of being a journalist. So is ensuring the quality of materials you outsource.

Fair criticism. It’s also useful in that it highlights how Moulitsas can prevent this from happening again: by being more rigorous in checking the data his polling partner provides. Sure, Moulitsas is a journalist, not a pollster—but he’s also a publisher, and is therefore responsible for what goes on his site. That’s why it’s good that he doesn’t mince words about what needs to happen with the Research 2000 data: “I ask that all poll tracking sites remove any Research 2000 polls commissioned by us from their databases. I hereby renounce any post we’ve written based exclusively on Research 2000 polling.”

What’s also interesting about Moulitsas’s response is that in the process of being open and admitting that “I want to feel stupid for being defrauded” and “I got burned, and got burned bad,” he actually cites transparency itself as one of the reasons why he was able to discover the apparent fraud. He notes that Daily Kos had as a matter of practice always released the internal numbers—the same data that formed the basis for the study by the three “statistic wizards” (Mark Grebner, Michael Weissman, and Jonathan Weissman) who informed Moulitsas of the problems with Research 2000. Here’s what Moulitsas wrote:

But ultimately, this episode validates the reason why we released the internal numbers from Research 2000 — and why every media outlet should do the same from their pollster; without full transparency of results, this fraud would not have been uncovered. As difficult as it has been to learn that we were victims of that fraud, our commitment to accuracy and the truth is far more important than shielding ourselves from cheap shots from the Right.

In the end, Moulitsas is so enamored with his commitment to transparency that he manages to use it to take a shot at his critics. It’s amazing what a cloak of radical transparency can allow you to do. The problem is so many people are quick to disrobe when the going gets tough.

(That’s what she said.)

Correction of the Week

“A music review on Thursday about a concert at the Nokia Theater on Tuesday night by the singer Adam Lambert referred incorrectly to kissing between Mr. Lambert and his bass player, Tommy Joe Ratliff. During the song “Fever,” they licked each other’s lips; Mr. Ratliff did not merely give Mr. Lambert a quick peck on the shoulder. (He did that later in the show.)” – The New York Times

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.