Friday, October 3, 2008

Pseudo science for a pseudo event

It's too bad those &*()!# dial tests and focus groups make for such entertaining television because they're a pox on the political process. CNN ran that stupid emotion meter on the screen throughout the veep debate just as they did last week with McCain and Obama. Is dial testing a legitimate research tool? Sure. It gives you a moment-by-moment sense of which messages work and don't work with key demographic groups. But my guess is most folks watching last night couldn't help feeling they were watching a national, real-time referendum on Biden and Palin. In actuality, 36 "undecided" voters from Ohio (18 men and 18 women) were registering their feelings. There's nothing wrong with giving viewers insights into how well the candidates were programmed by their debate handlers. After all, the campaigns wanted (and the format allowed) a very scripted performance by both of them. But how lazy or stupid does CNN think we are that we have to substitute the "judgment" of 36 people for our own? And how weak were many of us that we actually used some brain cells following the little graph on the screen when we should have been paying attention to the candidates? Show the damn dial test AFTER the debate.

By the way, the focus groups conducted live by CNN and Fox were every bit as much bad science as the dial testing. CNN's Soledad O'Brien interviewed those same 36 Ohioans. She is not a trained focus group facilitator and couldn't even count correctly a couple of times when she asked for a show of hands. CNN's group said Biden won. Over at Fox News, professional audience researcher (and media ham) Frank Luntz conducted a similar focus group with "undecided" voters in St. Louis. Strangely enough, the vast majority of his group thought Palin had won. I don't doubt the sincerity of either group's participants. But who cares? While I share Charles' distaste for the blatant spin and bloviating by the cable news panels, at least they were focusing on the only things that really mattered from last night's debate: did Palin reassure base and swing voters that she's not in over her head and did Biden raise serious doubts about his good friend John McCain?

Can you blame the media for this silliness? Sure. But they use their magic tricks to keep you engaged because the campaigns won't let Obama and McCain engage in honest, free-wheeling debate. Sarah Palin suggested she and Joe Biden do some town hall meetings together. McCain tried that already. Too bad it didn't work. And let's not forget to look in the mirror for a second. Want a better brand of campaigning? Demand it. Stop accepting bread and circuses.

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