Accuracy in Media

Kenneth Starr may be honored in history as the prosecutor who brought down President William Jefferson Clinton. On the other hand he may be scorned as the prosecutor who spent over four years and $40 million investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton and ended up famous only for a salacious report on Bill Clinton’s sexcapades in the Oval Office. Starr and his team filled that report with so much X-rated material that it may have done as much damage to his reputation as to Clinton’s grip on his job.

Starr and his team must have figured that by providing all the disgusting details of Clinton’s behavior they would make a major dent in his job approval ratings. To the surprise of many, the polls conducted over the weekend following the release of the Starr report showed little change in Clinton’s job approval ratings and overwhelming opposition to cutting Clinton’s second term short by either impeachment or resignation. Some of the poll results are suspect.

For example, ABC News polled 508 adults the day after the Starr report was released. In answer to the question, “Given what you know about the Lewinsky issue, do you think Clinton should remain in office as president, or should he resign the presidency?” Fifty-five percent said he should remain in office, compared to only 50 percent the previous day. We cannot believe that the report of all the disgusting details of the President’s behavior actually increased his support among the public.

ABC made a very important change in the way it worded the resignation question after Clinton admitted having had an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The question had previously been preceded by this hypothetical: “If Clinton had lied by testifying under oath that he did not have an affair with Lewinsky.” That was changed to (quote) “Based on what you know about the Lewinsky issue.” There was an 11 point jump in one day in those favoring him remaining in office the day that change was made in the question. This suggests that a lot of people don’t know that the Lewinsky issue involves Clinton’s lying under oath.

The poorly worded question plus the high margin of error when only 500 people are polled could make enough difference to bring the true percentage who want Clinton to hang onto his job down to 40 percent or less. The Zogby poll found that over 59 percent want Clinton to resign if he has lied and encouraged others to lie under oath. The Starr report shows that he has done both. Zogby, who polls only likely voters, came closest of all the pollsters to predicting the exact vote in the 1996 presidential election.

Zogby has found that nearly three times as many people would vote against a candidate for Congress for whom Clinton had campaigned than would vote for a candidate supported by Clinton. Zogby says that this is what the candidates’ own polls are showing. That’s why so many Democratic candidates don’t want Clinton’s help. The polls that show his popularity is nearly as high as ever are highly misleading.

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