As regular readers know, I hold a special place in my heart for Fox News polling, because unlike independent polls commission by major journalistic institutions, Fox News’ surveys tend to be … special.
The network’s latest poll includes some results that Fox News hosts will probably not like. For example, the poll shows President Obama’s approval rating at a seven-month high and approval of Obama’s economic stewardship is now at its highest level since 2009. Making matters worse, support for the Affordable Care Act has reached an all-time high for any Fox News poll and a plurality of respondents now believe Obamacare will end up being “a good thing for the country.”
But it’s question #27 that jumped out at me.
“In the aftermath of the Benghazi terrorist attacks, the Obama administration incorrectly claimed it was a spontaneous assault in response to an online video, even though the administration had intelligence reports that the attacks were connected to terrorist groups tied to al Qaeda. Do you think the Obama administration knowingly lied about the attacks to help the president during the ongoing re-election campaign, or not?”
Remember, this is a question in a poll conducted by an ostensible news organization. It effectively asks, “The administration totally lied. Do you think the administration knowingly lied?”
Making matters worse, Fox News isn’t just offering a case study in how not to conduct a legitimate poll, it’s also failing in other important ways.
For example, despite claims the poll presents as fact, the truth remains that the online video did play a role in motivating the initial attacks. and despite multiple investigations, there’s literally nothing to suggest administration officials deliberately tried to mislead anyone.
What’s more, note the responses to the poll – even after Fox News told poll respondents that the administration lied, when asked whether the administration lied, only 51% agreed. That’s obviously a majority, but when questions are manipulated to generate a specific response, the results are supposed to be even more one-sided.
In contrast, the Fox News poll found that 63% of respondents believe congressional Republicans are pursuing this story for partisan gain, not because they’re interested in the truth.
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.
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.