Mark Memmott on Exit Polls, Social Security and Grumpy, Tired Reporters

Mark Memmott

USA Today’s Mark Memmott took on the media beat in early 2004, focusing on the press’s coverage of the election campaign. Since joining USA Today in 1984, Memmott has served in many capacities, editing and reporting for the Money, News, and World sections, duties that led to five trips to Afghanistan and one to Iraq. CJR Daily interviewed him January 20, just prior to the president’s inaugural address.

Thomas Lang: How do you deal with the inherent conflict of being a media reporter at a newspaper? How can you objectively and aggressively report on your own employer?

Mark Memmott: USA Today pays me. That raises a conflict. No way around it. You just have to do the best you can to set that aside and ask the kinds of questions you think you would of any other company, that your competitors would ask and that your readers would appreciate seeing answered. When I’ve had to write about the paper, I’ve sometimes said to the editors something like this: “I need to ask this question because others are going to and we don’t want to look like we’re ignoring it. Plus, we want to show readers that we’re being transparent.” It’s similar to the argument reporters often make when calling agencies or companies that are embroiled in controversy: “It’s in your interest to tell me your side of the story.” That said, I’m sure every media writer is open to criticism from outside for not being aggressive enough about reporting what’s going on in his or her newsroom. And if we were all honest, I bet we’d admit that there’s some truth to the charge.

TL: You wrote an article Wednesday about the decision by the National Election Pool consortium to release all the data that fed into the controversial Election Day exit polls. This is an action that the mainstream media, Democratic politicians, and the blogosphere have been screaming for since Election Day. What’s the significance of the release and who’s responsible for making it happen?

MM: I think the NEP mostly did what its members probably wanted to do all along — which means no one is really responsible for “making it happen.” They’ve released the same type of data they always do. In this case, that’s about 70,000 questionnaires that were completed by voters on Election Day and the mountain of data about issues, demographics and voting patterns that they’ve always given to researchers by mid-January or so following an election. What wasn’t certain, and what they may have been prodded into doing by all the criticism of the “mistakes” made in the exit polls on Election Day, was whether they would release the report from their pollsters about “what went wrong.”

The significance of getting that second report is this: It may prompt further discussion by the media about the value of exit polls for reporting on Election Day and that night. If experienced pollsters who were brought in to “fix” past problems still ran into enormous difficulties getting valuable information to the media that day, then maybe it’s time for the networks and others to talk about relying on exit poll data more for the kind of information that researchers say they deliver best — post-election retrospectives on the issues that drove voters’ decisions.

The NEP hasn’t, by the way, satisfied everyone by a long shot. Its members say they don’t know what the “raw data” are that some in the blogosphere and elsewhere have been clamoring for. Don’t be surprised if there are some angry folks.

TL:: President Bush has made it clear that Social Security and tax reform will be at the top of his agenda for his second term. Is the political press — notoriously filled with economic novices — prepared to deal with the administration’s press machine, given the arcane nature of these issues for most reporters?

MM: Most reporters would rather have a root canal than cover Social Security and tax reform. As a former economics reporter, I can understand their fear. But the major newspapers, wires and networks all have very talented people who can more than hold their own against the administration’s best economic spin and who have deep, deep source files.

In addition, they’ve also got an army of watchful experts ready to help them get things right. I’m talking about the bloggers. After all, during “Rathergate” we certainly found there were plenty of very smart people out there who know a lot about seemingly arcane issues such as IBM Selectric fonts from the early 1970’s (no offense intended, Selectric fans!). I bet there are many more experts on taxes and Social Security who will be more than willing to help get us through those complicated matters.

TL: Since the end of the election there has been much discussion about changes needed in gathering and presenting the news on television. CBS is considering doing away with the single anchor in favor of a multi-anchor format reporting from various cities. CNN has banished “Crossfire” in an effort to rely less on the infamous shouting heads and five-second sound bites. What is your sense of the motivation behind these changes?

MM: The more things change … Isn’t this what happens in the media all the time? Somebody comes up with a great idea — shout shows, color weather pages, “the Whip” — so then everybody tries to copy. Gradually, things get out of whack because nobody looks “different” anymore. So … we “go back to basics” or “stress fundamentals.” The motivation is simple: grab readers, viewers, listeners. If you’ve tried to copy the other guys and it isn’t working or it’s just played out, you try something different.

TL: President Bush will soon deliver the State of the Union address. In his previous three addresses he has characterized the State of the Union as “strong.” How would you characterize the State of the Media as we enter what seems certain to be a contentious political year?

MM: Grumpy, tired and about 20 pounds overweight. But then, that’s always the State of the Media Union.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.