Press Box

Exit Polls and Other Temptations of the Wild West

Dear Jack,

Campaign Desk has taken a little heat lately for our criticism of the preliminary printing of exit-poll results by a variety of denizens of the blogosphere.

As we noted yesterday, it’s not rocket science to figure out what’s wrong with leaking exit-poll results hours before the polls close—it influences voters undecided about whether to even vote. “Why should I bother—the exit polls show my guy is getting his ass kicked?” So they turn around and go back home. Thus the exit poll becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy … and the blog becomes more powerful in determining the outcome than either the candidates or the voters.

That danger increases exponentially when news wires capitulate to the pressures to chase blog reports, and exit-poll results begin to appear on the Web sites of traditional newspapers, as also happened Tuesday.

Well. From the response to our item pointing this out, one might think we here at Campaign Desk had questioned motherhood, God, and apple pie

Writing in Slate, you chided us for becoming “journo-scolds” and “cops” trying fruitlessly to police the far corners of the Internet. (We, of course, think of ourselves as not a “cop” at all, but rather as the opposite; a Gary Cooper sort, the lonely stranger who wanders innocently into a lawless town and confronts chaos and disorder. The stranger speaks gently, in fact, but he captures attention—because the shrewder natives sense that he’s never lost a gunfight and he always gets the girl. But I digress.)

Another reader came to the defense of bloggers who rush to print with fragmentary information by noting: “People who read blogs know what they are reading has not been vetted by ombudspeople and editors and the like, and is therefore vulnerable to inaccuracy.”

I responded: “I’m going to save that quote, because it is a more eloquent description of many blogs’ shortcomings than I have bothered to come up with myself.”

(To date, the version that I have been giving to skeptical readers who ask me how is “different from any number of blogs?” is this: “Read my lips: IT’S EDITED!”) If [our position on this issue] causes our readers to finally make that distinctionor even if it causes us to be viewed hereafter as The Anti-Blog Blogthen it will have served double purpose.

The reader in question was kind enough to respond: “I do think that’s a reason blogs will never supplant mainstream media—the process of verification, talking to sources, ‘imprimatur of legitimacy,’ etc.”

And that’s it in a nutshell: In initially trying to defend blogs, he exposed their very shortcoming.

A third reader wrote in defense of release of early exit poll results: “Journalists are people who report news as soon as they can acquire it and verify it.”

And therein he put his finger on the problem with all but a handful of blogs: Most neither “acquire” news (that would require actual work) or “verify” it (yet more work). What they do instead is to yank unverified stuff from one another or from unreliable sources such as partisan political camps, sprinkle in a little opinion, and serve hot. (Matt Drudge, for one, has made an entire career out of this.) That may be fun, but it ain’t journalism.

So, call us old-fashioned, call us sentimental, call us giddy optimists—but we still hold to the apparently quaint view that a journalist’s job is to cover the electoral process, not to insert oneself into it.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say again: The great thing about the Internet is that anyone can start a blog—and the terrible thing about the Internet is that anyone can start a blog. We don’t expect to be very popular in the smug, self-satisfied blogosphere—where the main form of exercise seems to be mutual back-patting—for that point of view. But we’re big boys and girls, and we can live with that possibility.

If we’re responsible for vigorous debate taking place on standards in the blogosphere, we’ll consider that a good thing.

And on the side, we’re betting that if Internet journalists are held to the same standards of accountability expected of print and broadcast, it might in some small way affect their behavior.

Steve Lovelady