Did the New York Times and CBS News ask leading questions to twist Wisconsin polling data results?

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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The New York Times and CBS News have released a general public poll on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s budget plan as it relates to public sector unions, and critics are saying the poll results don’t necessarily support the conclusions drawn in the Gray Lady’s Tuesday front-page story.

The Times story was titled, “Majority in Poll Back Employees in Public Sector Unions.” But the paper and CBS used phrases such as “taking away” collective bargaining rights when conducting the poll.

Conservative pollster Scott Rasmussen told The Daily Caller, “There’s an awful lot in common ground between their poll and ours.” Rasmussen’s mid-February poll, which showed the public on Walker’s side, received criticism from Times pollster Nate Silver. Rasmussen found that 48 percent of respondents sided with Walker and 38 percent sided with unions, by asking respondents, “In the dispute between the governor and the union workers, do you agree more with the governor or the union for teachers and other state employees?”

On his NYTimes.com blog, Silver argued that Rasmussen’s data was skewed because of other questions he asked, such as, “Does the average public employee in your state earn more than the average private sector worker in your state, less than the average private sector worker in your state, or do they earn about the same amount?” and “Should teachers, firemen and policemen be allowed to go on strike?”

Silver contended that the thought of “strikes” could “invoke” a certain feeling about unions in respondents. Silver refused to comment for this story.

Rasmussen said the New York Times survey confirms a lot of his findings, but, “you have to read carefully what’s being asked and what’s being looked at.”

“They show a very modest net favorable rating for unions, the same as we did,” Rasmussen said. “What I found fascinating in the New York Times’ survey is that 37 percent of Americans said they think unions have too much influence on American life and politics. Only half that number, 19 percent, say they [unions] have too little influence.” That fact appears at the bottom of the Times story.

The top of the story reads, the “majority of Americans say they oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and are also against cutting the pay or benefits of public workers to reduce state budget deficits.” That statement follows on the following question to survey respondents:

As you may know, collective bargaining refers to negotiations between an employer and a labor union’s members to determine the conditions of employment. Some states are trying to take away some of the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. Do you favor or oppose taking away some of the collective bargaining rights of these unions?

Sixty percent of respondents said they’re against “taking away some of the collective bargaining rights,” with 33 percent in favor of doing so.

Rasmussen said the Times poll confirms that this is a “toss-up issue, all the way through.”

“If the issue is phrased that it’s a dispute about ‘breaking the unions’ or about ‘taking away collective bargaining rights,’ it’s clear that people side with the unions,” Rasmussen said. “If it’s framed in terms of reducing the state budget deficits, then the advantage probably shifts to the other side. The truth is, it’s a little bit of both.”

Ira Stoll, the editor of FutureofCapitalism.com, wrote about the potential biases in the poll. He told TheDC that responses can be “highly affected” by a question’s wording. Stoll said bias can also come from who is actually polled. Twenty-two percent of respondents to the New York Times and CBS News poll were public sector workers or had someone in their household who was. The Times mentioned that many of its respondents were public sector workers or had personal ties to them halfway through its story.

Pew Research Center also released a poll recently on the public’s reactions to Walker’s budget plans, and came out with results similar to the New York Times and CBS News poll.

“From what you’ve read and heard about the dispute between Wisconsin’s governor and public employee unions over collective bargaining rights, do you side more with: [the public employee unions, the governor, neither or don’t know/refused],” Pew asked respondents. Pew got 42 percent of respondents to say they support the unions, whereas 31 percent sided with the governor.

By framing the issue as a battle over collective bargaining rights, rather than balancing the budget, and including what “you’ve read and heard” about the issue opens the door for more bias, Stoll said. Stoll said the heavily biased news coverage coming out of Wisconsin may shift public opinion towards favoring the unions.

“I’m not saying the public sector unions in Wisconsin are writing the questions for the Pew poll or for the New York Times and CBS poll, but, if they had, I’m not sure they would have phrased them that differently,” Stoll said. “Somebody on the governor’s side could phrase the question in a way favorable to them, too, and come up with a different result.”