Emily's Post would like to poll the public's opinion about public opinion polls
Here's the question for today: Should a public university that prides itself on intellectual honesty and vigorous sifting and winnowing in order to discover truth join forces with a partisan organization to conduct public opinion polls?
Regardless of which cardinal direction the partisan organization leans toward, isn't it simply not worth the inevitable appearance of bias for the public university? One way or another, people are going to start questioning the validity of your results and those polls you spend money conducting are going to be rendered fairly useless.
That should have been the question asked by the UW-Madison last fall when it was announced, by their own wire service, that they'd be partnering with the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) to conduct public opinion polls.
Apparently, the UW has since thought better of that and changed its story to say that only Ken Goldstein, a political science professor, had partnered with the group. As it turns out, Goldstein did jump the gun a bit, signing a $13,000 deal with WPRI before an official agreement had been reached with the university.
Between that detail coming to light and the fairly vigorous backlash to the initial announcement, it's no surprise that the UW is backing off from the whole deal. But this seems like something that should have been dealt with before the many press releases and news reports detailing the partnership went to print all throughout last autumn.
According to a recent AP Wire piece, this is how the whole thing shook out:
The deal with the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute would give star political scientist Ken Goldstein a funding source and a platform to showcase his public opinion work. Graduate students and faculty would help and get to use the data. The university would build relationships with powerful conservatives - and perhaps boost fundraising as a result.
...UW-Madison now says there was never a formal contract with WPRI. Goldstein signed his own $13,000 deal with WPRI to conduct polls before a university agreement was final, which he calls a well-intentioned mistake. As a result, UW recently asked WPRI to stop using its logo, has stopped providing graduate students for the project and won't publicize future polls.
Whoops. One can only hope this will serve as a valuable lesson for anyone else looking to do polling without the appearance of bias. Namely, don't partner with a partisan organization, and also maybe check the details before going public with the news.
An interesting side note to the story is how it has been covered by area news organizations. You might notice that the link to the AP story above goes to the website of a Boston news station. That's because I wasn't able to find the article, in full-length, on any major Wisconsin news sites. The Badger Herald, a student paper, has a pretty decent run-down of the recent developments. There was a very short blurb on the Wisconsin State Journal site (but they did run the full AP story in print on Monday). There's been a big fat nothing from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which otherwise seems happy enough to parrot most of WPRI's talking points.
You'd think this would be juicy stuff for the newspapers, though. It's got a little bit of everything: political intrigue, liberal muckrakers, right-wing think tanks, and even Tommy Thompson!
And speaking of Tommy, the WPRI/Goldstein poll was one of the driving forces behind the initial push to get the former governor to join the race against Russ Feingold for Senate. The numbers released at first suggested that Tommy would garner more votes than Feingold if he threw his hat in the ring.
That's the bigger issue. We, the public, deserve honest polling. While they're not the end-all-be-all, they can be helpful tools in seeking to find more equitable solutions to issues that affect us all.
After considerable criticism for even including the question in the larger poll (at a time when there was hardly a whiff of possibility that Thompson might run), its authors backed off slightly and made another release that said "the race would be competitive, that undecided voters may favor Feingold and Thompson would be re-evaluated after not running for office for years."
Of course, WPRI is run by George Lightbourn, former administration secretary for Thompson. And open records requests made by the progressive group One Wisconsin Now showed evidence of some politically motivated manipulation of the poll numbers. Smell a little fish-like to you? It should.
It also shouldn't come as a surprise. Again, Goldstein and the UW should have seen this coming a mile off.
Free speech or feeding the trolls?
I've been thinking a lot lately about the controversy over the Badger Herald's decision to run an ad for a Holocaust denier on their website. My opinion on the matter has wobbled back and forth somewhat, mostly because I'm having a hard time reconciling my ardent belief in freedom of speech with my ardent disgust for Holocaust deniers.
I also spent some time as the editor of a college newspaper and well understand the pressures put on them by students, staff, and the public to conform to their ideas of what is and is not appropriate to print. Most of that pressure is bullshit, if you'll pardon my French, meant to stifle articles and opinions with which certain people simply disagree.
But this feels very different.
First, isn't it generally good policy to ignore trolls? A Holocaust denier may be a particularly despicable breed of troll, but they're a troll nonetheless. Feeding them, even by making reasoned, informed arguments against their position, just makes them feel like they're being paid attention to and, therefore, encourages them.
Second, if this ad is a kind of hate speech, where do paper's editors draw the line? Would they run an ad for a person or group that denounces and demonizes any other group of people? Like gays, or African Americans, etc.?
Like I said, I used to edit a college newspaper and we had fights over appropriate content with the student council and faculty all the time. Normally I'm prone to siding with the editor's decision, especially where issues of censorship (and not bowing to it) are concerned. But this wasn't news or editorial content. It was a paid advertisement. There's no journalistic code that says you have to take all comers for advertisements, especially if, as a journalist, you believe the ad represents an outright fallacious and potentially dangerous point of view.
This isn't a "two sides to every story" issue. The Holocaust happened and it was beyond awful. It's not really up for debate.
Illy T has more on the subject that's worth a read.
Check out this list of political contributions made by Terrence Wall. Man, it's like a who's who of Republican politicians and causes with one notable exception. I can't decide if Tammy's just that awesome, or if Wall got hammered and drunk dialed her donation line late one night.
Please be sure to give a warm welcome to Jack "The Sconz" Craver when he moves in next door here at The Daily Page in the coming days. He does good work!