In the Arena


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A poll taken by CNN today has Americans opposed to the health care legislation passed by the House, 49-46. A poll taken by the Washington Post has a 52% majority opposed to the war in Afghanistan.

I’d say that I take both with a grain of salt, except a grain of salt is more substantive. Let’s say, for a moment, the questions were asked in a different way: Are you in favor of the way of the current health care system or would you favor a plan that makes it impossible for insurance companies to deny you coverage but requires that all Americans carry insurance that the government would subsidize for those who can’t afford it? Or, Are you in favor of allowing the Taliban to regain control of Afghanistan and provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda?

I daresay the results would be different. The point is, polling on issues is next to useless–especially on issues as emotionally complicated as wars and as technically complicated as health care reform. The only safe conclusion from these particular polls is this: the public has mixed feelings on Afghanistan and health care reform. Brilliant! I have mixed feelings, too. But that’s not the way you’ll see these played: the headlines will be: Public Opposes Health bill. Public Opposes War.

And the headlines will be ginormous. This is one of my biggest gripes with journalism as it is practiced, particularly on cable news: Polling numbers are “facts.” They can be cited with absolute authority, sort of. And so they are given credence beyond all proportion to their actual importance or relevance. But they are not very truthy facts. The are imperfect impressions. They don’t tell us how many people actually know what’s in the House bill. They don’t tell us what the public thinks a plausible alternative strategy might be in Afghanistan. They are what journalists hang on to instead of actually reporting and thinking. And they are–for me, too–addictive.