Requiem for a Poll

Dec 19, 2008 11:10am

This note marks the passing of a fallen comrade: The Los Angeles Times Poll, dead at age 31.

The Times’ last survey, done in conjunction with its recent partner, Bloomberg News, was released nine days ago. Cleanup’s followed, and today is the final day for the polling staff, including the paper’s polling director, Susan Pinkus, and associate director, Jill Darling.

That closing poll was typical: First-rate methodology, a thoughtful 51-item questionnaire and a detailed six-page analysis. Focused, fittingly, on the economy, it found the number of Americans who feel financially secure at its lowest since the poll started asking the question 17 years ago.

The L.A. Times Poll was created in 1977 – two years before our own polling started here at ABC News – by the legendary public opinion researcher Irwin A. “Bud” Lewis, then a vice president at the Roper Organization. When The Associated Press assigned me to run its small polling operation in 1986 I set out to learn from the best; that led quickly to a long lunch with Bud at the American Cafe in Rockefeller Center, where he patiently drew bell curves on napkins while a parade of martinis crossed the table. He spent a lot of time with a young reporter, because he wanted me to get it right.

There’s another personal connection: After his death in 1990 Bud was succeeded by John Brennan, then No. 2 in the Polling Unit here at ABC; I took John’s job. When John died too young, at 41 in 1995, Susan moved up and has guided the L.A. Times Poll since, from the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal through 9/11, the Iraq war and finally the 2008 election.

It’s remained a vital poll throughout; just last year the L.A. Times won the “Excellence in Media Coverage of Polls” award from the National Council on Public Polls for a survey of 12- to 24-year-olds about their use of entertainment and technology. The award noted “that the Los Angeles Times entry illustrated how news stories may be enriched and common myths debunked with the incorporation of public opinion research.”

I’ll leave the cause of death to forensic experts. Clearly newspapers are in challenging times, struggling to reconcile the costs of reporting essential news with upheaval in the distribution of that content. What I do know is that good reporting is necessary to our democracy, and that good polling is good reporting.

Reliable, honest, independent, professional news and analysis are as important now as they’ve always been. Specific to polling, we live in a time of too-often shoddy methodology and manufactured data. In that murk, the Times poll has been a beacon.

Does the loss of a single polling outfit matter? If it’s a good one, sure it does. Even when well done, a single poll often is insufficient to illuminate public opinion fully; like a flashlight on a dark road, it takes a bunch of them, shining in the same direction, to show the way. Without the L.A. Times Poll, our path forward will be a little less well-lighted.

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