Public opinion polling came into its own in the late ‘30s and ‘40s as a way to inform public and private decision makers about what the public, in its manifold forms, was thinking or how it might react to some new decision. To the extent that polling still does that, it’s a useful tool.
But consider polling as a form of entertainment or faux news reporting. Then it becomes a tool more intended to tell the public what to think or decide: ignorance informing ignorance. What I mean is that the daily cascade of news is filled with reports of what the polls say. Is the economy getting better? Should we pull out of Afghanistan? Are 40,000 additional troops going to be enough to win? Was bailing out Wall Street a good idea? Should Boise State get a bowl bid? The questions aren’t bad, but the answers are because they are broadcast not so much as indicators of what Americans think but as pointers to what Americans should be thinking. There is an implied assumption that somehow those polled have some reasonable expertise about the economy, conditions in Afghanistan, military planning, Wall Street, the BCS bowl game process, or whatever else the polls are about.
If a majority of those polled think thus and such they must know something I don’t know and I’d better go along with them to be on the safe side. It gets even worse with various television call-in polls, such as those featured on CNN’s Cafferty File segments, in which viewers are asked to call in their votes, aye or nay, on complex issues of the day with the results posted in very short order. As entertainment, it’s a lot of fun. But to imply that it’s any more than a form of entertainment is misleading, and that is exactly what is done on television news shows.
It’s not that I think polling results should be kept secret. I just don’t think that polls should be used in a frivolous manner, particularly when that frivolity is deliberately intended to lead the uninformed by the uninformed on complex issues of importance to the welfare of the world in which we live. In the remote event that some news producer reads this and objects that such would never have been their intent, my response would be that he/she is either lying or is dumb as a rock. Let’s face it, it’s a pretty good marketing gimmick that spices up 24-hour news programming a bit.