As regular readers may know, I hold a special place in my heart for Fox News polling, because unlike independent polls commissioned by major journalistic institutions, Fox News’ surveys tend to be … special.
The latest installment is genuinely amazing, even by Fox standards.
“Do you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now in return for it agreeing that it won’t obtain nuclear weapons before then?”
The question was asked as part of a series of questions about international nuclear talks with Iran, making it seem as if the proposed agreement would “allow Iran to get nuclear weapons [in] 10 years.” Except, that’s not even close to being true – no one, at least not in the Obama administration, is considering a plan to “allow” Iran to have nuclear weapons at any point, ever.
It’s an annoying-but-familiar tack: word the question in the most misleading way possible in order to generate a specific result. What’s more, it worked – 84% of poll respondents said such a deal would be a “bad idea.”
Paul Waldman responded, “What I wonder is, do the people at Fox think this kind of thing really serves their audience well? I guess they must, or they wouldn’t be doing it. But to me, it shows that they look on that audience as a bunch of suckers.”
It’s a fair point, though part of me suspects polls like these have little do with serving Fox’s core viewership.
Note, for example, that soon after Fox News released the ridiculous results based on misleading questions, Bill Kristol celebrated the poll, declaring, “84% call Obama-type deal bad idea.” That the question was unrelated to an “Obama-type deal” was irrelevant.
And therein lies the point. I imagine many congressional Republicans will soon follow, and it will become a staple of GOP talking points: 84% of Americans, they’ll say, oppose the unannounced international agreement with Tehran. After all, there’s a poll from a news organization that proves the widespread public opposition.
In other words, polls like Fox’s are less about informing the network’s audience and more about creating talking points for those in the political arena. Fox viewers are already going to oppose any diplomatic agreement President Obama agrees to, so they don’t need persuading. Fox polls are intended to serve a broader and more practical purpose.
And as we’ve discussed before, to drive the point home, it’s important to appreciate the larger pattern of starting with the preconceived narrative and then wording the questions to generate the satisfying results. Fox News’ habit of playing political games with its polling has been ongoing for a while.
I first noted it back in March 2007, when the network’s poll asked, in all seriousness, “Do you think the Democratic Party should allow a grassroots organization like Moveon.org to take it over or should it resist this type of takeover?” Soon after, another Fox poll asked, “Do you think illegal immigrants from Mexico should be given special treatment and allowed to jump in front of immigrants from other countries that want to come to the United States legally, or not?”
In 2009, a Fox poll asked, “Do you think the United Nations should be in charge of the worldwide effort to combat climate change and the United States should report to the United Nations on this effort, or should it be up to individual countries and the United States would be allowed to make decisions on its own?”
In March 2013, a Fox poll asked, “Former President George W. Bush stopped golfing after the start of the Iraq war. Do you think President Barack Obama should stop golfing until the unemployment rate improves and the economy is doing better?”
In June 2013, a Fox News poll claimed, “The Internal Revenue Service admitted it targeted Tea Party and conservative groups for extra scrutiny,” despite the fact that this isn’t what the IRS said.
Last year, Fox News even suggested in a poll that the Obama administration “knowingly lied” about the 2012 attack in Benghazi, even though the question was based on discredited conspiracy theories.
Professional news organizations put a great deal of care into how they word polling questions. To get reliable results that accurately reflect public attitudes, surveys have to be careful not to guide respondents or skew their answers.
It’s possible – just possible – Fox is less concerned about accurately reflecting public attitudes, and more interested in advancing an agenda.