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Reporter's defense calls into question quality of work

What’s most remarkable about his published defense concerning the unorthodox piece he wrote publicizing an internal poll for Senate candidate Rep. Charlie Melancon is not so much what was or was not addressed in it, but that he wrote it at all.

Surely Gannett News reporter Mike Hasten felt a little disquiet when he decided to go with a story about how Melancon’s campaign pollster showed the candidate down only(!) 10 percentage points to incumbent Sen. David Vitter, when independent polling showed Vitter with a lead more than twice that. And if my original post on the questionable nature of that decision didn’t catch his attention, national political writer Stuart Rothenberg’s critique certainly did to the point that Hasten felt compelled to defend his story’s appearance.

Both Rothenberg and I pointed out in our respective pieces the various ways that impaired trusting the results from the paid pollster as unbiased and truly indicative of the contest (Rothenberg called it “spin”). As further evidence, I compared it with the independent poll and concluded the vast difference between the two meant one was less valid than the other for an objective view of the contest, and on balance the evidence suggested it was the paid pollster’s that came up short. Rothenberg also gave an example from another contest concerning the less-suitable nature that internal polls have in getting an accurate assessment of the actual dynamics of a contest.

Hasten attempted to defend the use of “spin” as the basis for a presumably objective story about the campaign in several ways. He noted the Melancon campaign polling firm, which works exclusively for Democrats, was “reputable.” He wrote that a pollster cited in the story unconnected to the contest that he used to build the thesis that Melancon was competitive was a registered Republican. He observed that the he asked the Vitter campaign if it would release its internal polling for his use but it didn’t.

All of which misses the point that Rothenberg and I made: the information released itself is questionable as a tool for objectively judging the state of a contest. Rothenberg points out, and uses another pollster on background to emphasize, that this kind of information is presented to a candidate in an affirmative way that does not mean the information is not valid, but that it is done so selectively. It does not matter even if the highest quality data were collected; short of having the actual unadulterated data and original, unaltered question protocol, if Hasten was given the same information that went to the candidate, as a whole it will draw conclusions that are optimistic for that candidacy.

The same goes for any other source reviewing such information: conclusions are to some extent predetermined by the choices of information to present. And what good would Vitter’s internal polling do for this? It probably is much closer to the independent polling results. What kind of story would Hasten have written then if he already had decided – he must have because he treated them as such in the story – that the Melancon results accurately depicted the state of the race? They can’t both be right, so would Hasten have been critical of the putative Vitter data despite it being of the same kind as Melancon’s?

This points to the elephant in the room that Hasten simply cannot bring himself to see: the independent pollster, Rasmussen, surveying almost at the same time and with a record of a high degree of accuracy, came up with much different results. I previously noted the various sources that could explain some of the variation but it’s unlikely it would account for all – and some of that variation that can be attributed is a result of data collection decisions that can introduce bias into the results. Again, keep in mind that Hasten is deeming as an accurate portrayal of the contest information collected on behalf of a campaign which means by definition he must declare as inaccurate an independent source with an excellent record – an approach that stretches credulity. He must take this approach because otherwise there is no story here – just spin produced by a campaign that should not be newsworthy.

On this matter, Hasten contradicts himself when he bases his defense mainly on getting Vitter’s numbers as well. Not getting them, he never should have run the story in the first place (which was solicited by the Melancon campaign that proffered the information to him) if he believed, as is implied by the fact he told the Melancon campaign that he would ask for Vitter’s numbers, that they were presented in a way optimistic to Melancon. Why even bring that up otherwise?

But then it’s disingenuous to justify running the story anyway on the basis that Vitter’s campaign did not want to share their data (for obvious reasons that they contain campaign-sensitive strategic information: Melancon’s campaign was willing to release theirs because of the sense of desperation around it on the gamble it could change perceptions about the race), missing a chance to “rebut.” Rebut what, a campaign handout with another? Why would that be news that could add anything to our understanding of the contest?

(Ironically, the goal of the Melancon campaign to change impressions of the contest got subverted by the story they hoped would do this. The story and Hasten’s addendum have become the story itself, not the spin designed to be interjected into the campaign narrative.)

One of three things happened here: either Hasten was a useful idiot to the Melancon campaign, or he harbors sympathy for the campaign and wanted it to get a leg up with his story, or, given his weak justifications on this incident, his critical faculties aren’t good in these matters. If the first, chastened he would not have written a defense. If the others, sadly now readers must keep them in mind whenever they read anything presented as a straight news story that carries his byline.

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