Polling a pollster

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When the national press devoured a new union-sponsored poll released last week by uber-pollster John Zogby claiming that a majority of Americans believe that “Wal-Mart is bad for America,” not reported were serious ethical issues which call into question the integrity of the much-ballyhooed survey.

Perhaps because Mr. Zogby has such a sterling reputation — which has enabled him to snare contracts with several top media outlets, including Reuters, NBC, and the Wall Street Journal — his findings were reported largely unchallenged.

But what no journalist would have known without digging is that Mr. Zogby cannot be considered an objective third-party when it comes to Wal-Mart. Without the presumption that the pollster was working solely to gauge scientifically the attitudes of the public, the poll loses much of its luster and becomes just another cog in Big Labor’s coordinated campaign against the retailer.

In recent years, Mr. Zogby has pocketed roughly $90,000 to serve as an expert witness for individuals suing Wal-Mart, according to testimony he gave in a deposition last year in an Arizona case. Nowhere is Mr. Zogby’s prior work on behalf of plaintiffs mentioned in the press release announcing the poll results.

During a 45-minute phone interview for this column, Mr. Zogby willingly acknowledged when asked about his work on behalf of the various plaintiffs. He repeatedly requested that the column reflect his honesty, which shows that he understands the relevance of his past work.

Which raises the question: If he implicitly concedes that his testifying for people suing Wal-Mart is relevant, then why wasn’t that disclosure in the announcement of the poll results?

Though Mr. Zogby insisted that being paid tens of thousands by people suing the retailer did not compromise his objectivity, he was careful to note that the press release announcing the poll results was drafted by the client, Big Labor-backed WakeUpWalMart.com. But when reached the following morning, Mr. Zogby conceded that his staff “heavily edited” the release and even posted it on the group’s Web site and put the release out over its wire.

As any pollster can attest, trust is the key issue, as polling — no matter how transparent or scientific it purports to be — hinges on the credibility of the wizard behind the curtain. Pollsters are masters of subtle manipulation, and small changes in wording can — and often do — yield substantially different results. Or questions can be asked in such a way that produce ambiguous results that can be interpreted in many different fashions.

Precisely because trust is so important, WakeUpWalMart.com hired Mr. Zogby to give its poll bashing Wal-Mart extra panache and an air of instant credibility. In a phone interview, WakeUpWalMart.com spokesman Chris Kofinis adamantly maintained that the poll was beyond reproach because Mr. Zogby is “an independent.” Which, not coincidentally, is exactly how the pollster described himself — again and again and again.

But how “independent” is it to, as Mr. Kofinis described it, draft poll questions “in consultation with” WakeUpWalMart.com, even though the reason Zogby polls are held in higher esteem is because they perceived to be more objective, more “independent?” And by Mr. Zogby’s own admission, WakeUpWalMart.com wrote the press release that he put his company’s name on and subsequently sent out. Mr. Kofinis knew this wouldn’t look good, and he didn’t fess up that his group wrote the Zogby press release until he was told that Mr. Zogby admitted it.

The Wal-Mart poll is not the first time Mr. Zogby has taken money from one party and conducted polling where his objectivity ostensibly would be compromised. According to a November 2000 Village Voice article, the pollster collected “$54,000 in payments from the 1997 Giuliani campaign after polling the race for the [New York] Post, and picking up another $5000 this year from the State Republican Committee while polling the Senate race.”

Of course it’s entirely possible that Mr. Zogby could take significant cash from people suing Wal-Mart and then turn around and conduct an objective poll. There’s no reason to believe that was the case, however, based on anything other than faith. And such faith is diminished when the potential bias is conveniently clipped from the press release.

Without the Zogby magic dust sprinkled on the poll, most would see it as yet another grenade lobbed at Wal-Mart by the unions, who have, thus far, failed to push the retailer’s million-plus employees into their ranks. The tantalizing prospect of landing billions in new compulsory dues has sprung Big Labor into action, crafting a campaign to give Wal-Mart a black eye and, they hope, forcing the retailer into submission.

Near the end of phone interview, Mr. Kofinis became quite agitated and yelled, “You can’t say that the poll isn’t objective!” But given the facts, it would seem better to ask: How can anyone say it is?

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