the problem with news aggregators, ctd. (or, sympathy does not mean agreement)

Last week, I posted about a misleading headline on the Daily Caller website that implied equal guilt between Republicans and Democrats when it came to paying bloggers for coverage, a charge that I felt was not adequately backed up by the linked article. This week, I think the Huffington Post is guilty of a similar offense.

At issue is a recent Newsweek poll that contained the following question:

“Some people have alleged that Barack Obama sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world. From what you know about Obama, what is your opinion of these allegations?”

They provide a break down of responses to that question, in which 52% of Republicans answered either “Definitely True” (14%) or “Probably True” (38%), as compared to 17% of Democrats (3% /14%) and 27% of Independents (5% / 22%).  Though I find these numbers to be disturbing (especially given the vagaries of what “Islamic Law” or “Sharia” would entail, as Adam Serwer points out, rendering the question extremely ambiguous), I think the more disturbing thing is the twisting of the language that Sam Stein uses to describe the results and achieve a desired effect. The link on the HuffPost Politics page says “Poll: GOP Majority Says Obama Wants Global Islamic Law, Sympathizes With Islamic Fundamentalism,” while the headline of the article itself is only slightly different: “Poll: Majority Of GOP Believes Obama Sympathizes With Islamic Fundamentalism, Wants Worldwide Islamic Law”.

My issue with Stein’s presentation is that it equates believing that Obama sympathizes with Islamic fundamentalists who themselves want to impose “Islamic law” around the world with believing that Obama himself wants to impose “Islamic law” around the world. That is an intellectual leap that I am not willing to make. For example, I sympathize with Tea Partiers, because I see them as a demographic of dwindling political importance that is having a lot of trouble coming to terms with that, who have responded to their decline by trying to make their voices heard. These people have an idea of what it means to be American, and think that the country that the direction is headed in is moving away from that idea. I can sympathize with them, but that doesn’t mean you would have found me at Glenn Beck’s rally last Saturday or that I agree with their policy goals (I most definitely do not).

So I think that it oversimplifies the issue to cast the results of the Newsweek survey in the light that Sam Stein did, and that he does so to score political points and paint Republicans as conspiracy theorists to satisfy his liberal reader base (of which I am a member).

(Click here to see the first post in this series.)

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3 Responses to the problem with news aggregators, ctd. (or, sympathy does not mean agreement)

  1. RS says:

    I wonder if you’re over-analyzing. The intent of the poll is very clear to me– does Obama agree with the fundamentalists or not. The question of whether he himself intends to impose Islamic law, vs. support their right to do so is moot because the wording of the poll is so strong (“goals of the Islamic fundamentalists”). I doubt a significant number of people would have read that poll any other way — probably within the margin of error.

    Also, if you look at the other question in the poll, bout 52% of Republicans and 9% of Democrats think that the big man favors Muslims.. so its probably all the same people who hate my man Obama,

    • frouglas says:

      Yeah, I probably am over-analyzing. I tend to do that.

      But the point that I was trying to make was that the headline used by the Huffington Post conveys a different message than the results of the poll. I think (and maybe this is misguided) that if you were to phrase the question as Stein did in the headline, and ask “Do you think that President Obama wants to impose global Islamic law?” you would see a lower rate of agreement from Republicans. Based on that assumption, I think that Stein is framing the results of the poll to achieve a political goal, i.e. showing Republicans as conspiracy theorists who have the craaaaaaziest ideas. While there certainly are some crazies in that sample, I think that you could also see agreement with a question like that based on concerns that Obama’s policies are too soft on terror, or that his policies enable terrorism from those would want global Islamic law. To me, there’s a world of difference between saying that his policies are enabling terrorists and saying that he himself actively wants global Islamic law. One is a legitimate disagreement that can serve as the basis for a rational discussion, while the other is (in my mind) the ravings of someone incapable of rationality.

  2. Nicholas Kramer says:

    Not to mention the fact that these kinds of polls are almost entirely meaningless, compounded by both their unscientific nature and the absolute lack of understanding of statistics among most members of the media. Even PhD level analysis in many respected academic journals more often than not makes huge leaps in interpretation that have no basis in statistics and proper research methodology.

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