Exit Polls and Other Temptations of the Wild West

Herewith, two rounds in an exchange between Steve Lovelady, Managing Editor of Campaign Desk, and Jack Shafer, Editor-At-Large of Slate, inspired by Campaign Desk’s articles on premature release of exit poll data and Shafer’s rejoinder on Slate.

To: Jack Shafer
From: Steve Lovelady
Subject: The Moral Obligation of a Free Press
Friday, February 6, 2004; 5:20 p.m. EST

Dear Jack,

Let me take your points in order:

You’re right — it’s not the press’s responsibility to “maximize voter turnout,” but we never said it was. What we did say was that it’s the press’s responsibility to avoid actions that might well minimize voter turnout — to avoid inserting itself into the voting process as a player. That’s a distinctly different proposition.

With your “voter-turnout-isn’t-our-responsibility” line of defense, you implicitly concede our central point: that releasing exit poll numbers early does indeed have the potential to influence voters. Your argument is a form of throwing in the towel, suggesting that the barn door’s already open, the horse is gone and there’s nothing to be done. We don’t think it has to be that way.

It’s also true, as you say, that “exit polls aren’t projections of the winner. They’re merely raw data.” But how many blogs make that clear to readers? The networks have learned — the hard way — to preface their early counts of the actual returns with disclaimers. With a lot less on the line than, say, CBS, a lone blogger has no such reason for qualification. Whether or not exit polls are projections of the winner, if they’re perceived as such, the damage is done.

Moreover, you suggest that the logical extension of our view is that tracking polls from the day before could also influence voters and therefore shouldn’t be released. But there’s a difference between learning about a voter’s vague, often unformed intentions and learning what the voter has in fact just done. The psychological difference, in terms of the effect that that information can have on later voters, is marked.

Finally, as you noted in your original piece, weblogs, unbound by the contractual or editorial constraints of more mainstream media, dangle temptation in front of the networks every time they publish the numbers early. Sooner or later, the networks may say, “Dammit, we paid for the stuff,” capitulate and rush onto the air with early exit poll results themselves. That’s a future we’d like not to see.

(While we’re at it, we’d like to note that in some other countries, tracking polls in the run-up to the election aren’t publicized for exactly that reason. We don’t support that idea, but it does show that the concern we raise is reasonable, even when taken to its logical extension.)

And, now that you ask, yes, on election day we should wait for Kauai. Does it really serve the public to be able to learn the results at 11 p.m. EST instead of 7 a.m. the next day? Before cable TV, most people didn’t learn the results until reading the next morning’s paper. To borrow your phrase, the republic survived. Jeff Greenfield the other night on CNN called early exit polls the “crack cocaine” of political junkies. He was making a slightly different point, but the analogy holds: Want does not necessarily equal need.

Next you ask, “Why should this onerous news monopoly embargo [the major outlets’ contract with the NEP] apply to journalists who aren’t a party to it?” Legally, it shouldn’t, and doesn’t. But we’re arguing about journalistic ethics here, Jack. The fact that you don’t have a signed contract binding you not to release the numbers doesn’t let you off the hook, not in our book anyway.

Clearly, as you say, NEP clients should be more careful keeping the embargoed numbers under wraps … but arguing that if they slip up, it’s okay to take advantage of that is akin to declaring that if someone has a $100 bill sticking out of his pocket it’s okay to take it.

The emotional high point of your message is surely the line “Journalists aren’t in the business of concealing information, but of setting it free.” It’s a stirring sentiment — we almost broke out our John Phillip Sousa CD’s when we heard it — but it doesn’t hold up.

Information doesn’t exist on its own, like some unstoppable force of nature. It has no agency. We all, journalists and non-journalists, have information that we “release” and information that we keep to ourselves. There are cases aplenty in which journalists, quite properly, recognize a higher interest at stake than informational freedom. If you had information about, say, upcoming troop movements in a time of war, would you print it? We hope not. Bob Novak recently took heat for publishing information that outed a CIA operative. The criticism was justified, in our view, even though there was no indication that his action put lives at risk. Others, offered that scoop, refused to publish it. Given that journalists make exceptions to the “information freedom” imperative, why should protecting the legitimacy of the democratic process not qualify as one of those exceptions?

I want to close by branching out a little from the exit poll issue. It seems to us that in the brave new world of weblogs, too many bloggers want it both ways. They’re fond of celebrating themselves as independent, dynamic, fast-moving sources of information, and they claim, sometimes rightly, to have already demonstrated that they can and do dig up important news that older forms of media have wrongly ignored (the Trent Lott-Strom Thurmond episode is often cited as Exhibit A here). That’s partly hype, but it’s partly true, too. What is too often neglected is the principal that with that influence comes accountability. Weblogs that aspire to affect public affairs, including this one, are piggybacking on the extraordinary freedoms that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the press; given that, they ought to stop yelping every time that someone suggests that there is a moral burden that comes with that charter.

All best,

From: Jack Shafer
To: Steve Lovelady
Subject: Who’s Afraid of Too Much Information
Friday, February 6, 2004; 5:22 PM EST

Dear Steve,

Not only do we worship at different journalistic temples, we worship different gods, and I fear for you and your argument that my gods are much, much stronger.

Since you’ve ceased on the voter turnout point, let me amplify: As I wrote yesterday, journalists are under no obligation to report and write in a manner that will maximize voter turnout. To that statement let me add a corollary: Journalists are under no obligation to refrain from reporting or writing something that might persuade a voter to stay home and watch “Friends” reruns. Journalists are not in the democracy racket. They’re not in the game of empowering the populace. They are not social engineers. They need not think out the first, second, and third possible repercussion of most stories they write — the impact of disclosing exit-poll numbers being one of them — when they put fingers to keyboard.

If, indeed, some voters think the early release of exit polls are “deterring” them from voting, there are many workarounds short of calling a plague upon the web sites the post the numbers. Impressionable voters could, for example, quarantine their over-sensitive souls from the cruel world by filing absentee ballots. That way the exit polls and late tracking polls would have no effect on their voting state of mind. Or, they could refrain from looking at the web on Election Day, or vote the first thing in the morning before any exit poll data is distributed.

Similarly, the National Election Pool could do a better job of keeping that $100 bill from flying out of their pants and on to the sidewalk. In the spring of 2000, after Slate and other web sites published primary exit poll data before the polls closed, the exit poll consortium increased security and slowed the leak of data from a gusher to trickle. There’s no reason they couldn’t do it again in this election. I suggest you telegraph your concerns to the blabbermouths who own and subscribe to the National Election Pool.

Among the many deficiencies to your argument, add this: You fail to appreciate the willingness of many committed citizens to vote their conscience for their loser no matter what the outcome. Do you think a single Al Sharpton voter cast his ballot because he thought Sharpton had a chance of winning? They might be slightly nuts, but they’re not crazy. The Sharpton voter votes for Sharpton to make a statement, to buoy his prospects for the next primary, and if not the next primary, then the next campaign Sharpton enters. Likewise, in every presidential election (and some primaries), the presidential contest isn’t the only item on the ballot. There are statewide and local contests, tax referendums and initiatives. To imagine that voters stay home en masse to pout just because they’ve read the 2 p.m. exit polls’ findings is preposterous.

You bet your life that I think it matters whether we find out at 11 p.m. or late the next morning who the winner is. In our last presidential election the count and recount, the fits and starts of the Florida returns on Election Night and the a.m. hours that followed were important and vital news. If voters want to wait until the next day or next week for tonight’s news, that’s their prerogative — but don’t pretend that it’s somehow unethical for a journalist to report what he knows when he knows it. (Also, you’re absolutely wrong when you say news consumers didn’t generally know who the winners were on Election Night before the advent of cable TV. The old broadcast networks used to stay up late giving the returns before the cable channels assumed their Election Night supremacy.)

I might muster a little sympathy for your argument and your appeal to ethics if the American populace were interested in voting in the first place. They’re not. Even without the exit-poll excuse, they devise a billion reasons not to go to the polls. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, only 67.5 percent of voting age residents bothered to register to vote, and only 51.3 percent of voting age residents cast a ballot, according to the Federal Election Commission. There are many reasons people don’t vote, but it’s remarkably lame for a journalist to pin even a sliver of blame on a few blogs and political web sites.

Thanks for the dialogue,


From: Steve Lovelady
To: Jack Shafer
Subject: Exit Polls and Other Temptations of the Wild West
Thursday, February 5, 2004; 5:00 p.m.

Dear Jack,

Campaign Desk has taken a little heat lately for our criticism of the preliminary printing of exit poll results by a variety of denizens of the Blogosphere.

As we noted yesterday, it’s not rocket science to figure out what’s wrong with leaking exit poll results hours before the polls close — it influences voters undecided about whether to even vote. “Why should I bother-the exit polls show my guy is getting his ass kicked?” So they turn around and go back home. Thus the exit poll becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy … and the blog becomes more powerful in determining the outcome than either the candidates or the voters.

That danger increases exponentially when news wires capitulate to the pressures to chase blog reports, and exit poll results begin to appear on the web sites of traditional newspapers, as also happened yesterday.

Well. From the response to our item pointing this out, one might think we here at Campaign Desk had questioned motherhood, God and apple pie.

Writing in Slate, you chided us for becoming “journo-scolds” and “cops” trying fruitlessly to police the far corners of the Internet. (We, of course, think of ourselves as not a “cop” at all, but rather as the opposite; a Gary Cooper sort, the lonely stranger who wanders innocently into a lawless town and confronts chaos and disorder. The stranger speaks gently, in fact, but he captures attention — because the shrewder natives sense that he’s never lost a gunfight and he always gets the girl. But I digress.)

Another reader came to the defense of bloggers who rush to print with fragmentary information by noting: “People who read blogs know what they are reading has not been vetted by ombudspeople and editors and the like, and is therefore vulnerable to inaccuracy.”

I responded: “I’m going to save that quote, because it is a more eloquent description of many blogs’ shortcomings than I have bothered to come up with myself.”

(To date, the version that I have been giving to skeptical readers who ask me how Campaigndesk.org is “different from any number of blogs?” is this: “Read my lips: IT’S EDITED!”) If [our position on this issue] causes our readers to finally make that distinction — or even if it causes us to be viewed hereafter as The Anti-Blog Blog — then it will have served double purpose.

The reader in question was kind enough to respond: “I do think that’s a reason blogs will never supplant mainstream media-the process of verification, talking to sources, “imprimatur of legitimacy,” etc.”

And that’s it in a nutshell; in initially trying to defend blogs, he exposed their very shortcoming.

A third reader wrote in defense of releasing early exit poll results: “Journalists are people who report news as soon as they can acquire it and verify it.”

And therein he put his finger on the problem with all but a handful of blogs; most neither “acquire” news (that would require actual work) or “verify” it (yet more work). What they do instead is to yank unverified stuff from one another, or from unreliable sources such as partisan political camps, sprinkle in a little opinion, and serve hot. (Matt Drudge, for one, has made an entire career out of this.) That may be fun, but it ain’t journalism.

So, call us old-fashioned, call us sentimental, call us giddy optimists — but we still hold to the apparently quaint view that a journalist’s job is to cover the electoral process, not to insert oneself into it.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say again: The great thing about the Internet is that anyone can start a blog — and the terrible thing about the Internet is that anyone can start a blog. We don’t expect to be very popular in the smug, self-satisfied blogosphere — where the main form of exercise seems to be mutual back-patting — for that point of view. But we’re big boys and girls, and we can live with that possibility.

If we’re responsible for vigorous debate taking place on standards in the blogosphere, we’ll consider that a good thing.

And on the side, we’re betting that if Internet journalists are held to the same standards of accountability expected of print and broadcast, it might in some small way affect their behavior.

Steve Lovelady

From: Jack Shafer
To: Steve Lovelady
Subject: Don’t Worry About the Voters
Thursday, February 5, 2004; 5:00 p.m.

Dear Steve,

What exactly is it about the early release of exit polls by web sites that panics you? Reading your note carefully, I see that your primary concern is that a potential voter might observe the early exit poll numbers and then not vote for his candidate. But since when is it the primary responsibility of the press — print, broadcast, or Internet — to maximize voter turnout?

To allay some of your concerns, exit polls, especially the early ones, aren’t projections of the winners. They’re merely raw data from selected precincts that news organizations use to get a feel for what the final return might look like. These polls help network anchors think about how to shape their 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. newscasts and give print editors an indication of where they should apply editorial muscle for the next day’s newspaper.

Rarely are early exit polls much more precise than the tracking polls new organizations run and publish right up to Election Day. Using your logic, news organizations shouldn’t publish tracking polls on the eve of an election because some forlorn voter out there might read it, lose faith in his candidate, and stay home instead of voting. But nobody — not even you — thinks reporters should suppress tracking-poll data because it might change the course of an election. Likewise, nobody in the news business thinks we should suppress negative news stories or biting (or praiseful) commentaries because they might move the needle in one direction or the other. We go with what we know.

Also given your logic, on Election Day in November, the networks shouldn’t inform viewers who won the East Coast states before the West Coast states polls close because that might deter turnout. Are you for holding all exit polls, all elections counts, and all projections until the last poll closes on the western tip of Kauai? I’ve love to hear from you on this.

I have no problem with the networks holding their fire until they’re ready. That’s their call. No, actually, it’s not their call. The networks and the Associated Press, which controls the exit poll consortium (National Election Pool) contractually obligate all members and subscribers to hold the exit-poll data to their vests until a prearranged time-usually when most of the polls have closed in a state.

Why should this onerous news monopoly embargo apply to journalists who aren’t a party to it? In my mind, it’s clear that it shouldn’t. If National Election Pool owners and subscribers want to keep the exit-poll numbers secret, they should learn to keep their mouths shut, their phones on the hook, and their e-mails offline. And they should keep the network anchors and analysts from making their “wink-wink,” “nod-nod” assertions about what election trends are forming before the polls close. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is an example from the recent California recall election.

I’m a firm believer in what you quote one blogger saying above, but I’ll put a slightly different spin on it: Journalists aren’t in the business of concealing information but in setting it free. Every news organization and every blog should feel free to publish what it knows without an obligatory scolding from Campaign Desk about press responsibility. I think the republic will somehow survive.

Now, back to you for one more go-round.


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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.