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Political Animal

Riding The Elephant

It used to be that you had to turn on your television and switch the channel to Fox 45 to be misled.

In 1986, or about a century ago as it’s thought of in television, a former anchor for NBC and ABC named Linda Ellerbee wrote, “Local news is where you ride the elephant.” By this she meant that when the circus comes to town and they walk the elephants in from wherever they’ve transported them to the city venue, the circus people know that there’s always some local news assignment editor who salivates at the picture of elephants walking through the streets of your town. And sure enough, there’ll be some local newsperson riding the things, because the circus people will ask the reporter, “Hey—wanna ride one?” This gets the circus some free publicity and a few more seconds shaved off that reporter’s lifetime supply of dignity.

Figuratively speaking, WBFF Fox 45’s anchor Jeff Barnd rode the elephant last week. His employer commissioned what might be considered a “push poll” and got a Washington, D.C.-based firm to blast robocalls all through the Baltimore area. Said calls had a message right at the top from Barnd, identifying the station and telling the person receiving the call that the results would be featured on the station’s evening news.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a “push poll” isn’t a real poll. A real poll is conducted using scrupulously fair language in order to suss out the beliefs and sentiments of a community about the issues. A push poll is almost the opposite: It’s carefully worded to specifically drive up a political opponent’s negatives, or to subliminally affect the mind-set of the receiver of the call. Often the language can be of the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” variety, in order to drive the listener to select only one of the given choices.

We here at Animal Control received our call at 10:15 a.m. on May 22. A call to the number displayed on the Caller ID was answered by a recording stating that the number wasn’t receiving calls. After the pitch for the evening news by Barnd, the call asked if we wanted to participate and we answered “no,” after which the call went on with the survey as if our response didn’t matter in the least, which of course, to a push poll, it doesn’t.

This probably was a hint.

The survey started out with a question about Lyme disease, because if there’s one thing local TV news knows, it’s how to scare you in the month of May, when the stations conduct their sweeps to determine their advertising rates for the next season. (This explains the attention-whoring stories you see all month about how something in your house/car/life CAN KILL YOU.) The Lyme disease hook is just to keep you on the phone long enough to deliver the payload; after all, if you heard a question about politics right at the start, you’d probably hang up.

Barnd steps in it when he asks, “Gov. Martin O’Malley made same-sex marriage the focus of his legislative agenda. Do you think he’s using the issue to further his political career?” There you go: Here’s a newsman making a value judgment—flatly stating that O’Malley’s focus this past session was about marriage equality—and then asking a question based on the listener agreeing with the premise.

The next question was even worse: “The state legislature passed and Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a law that would allow illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition at Maryland colleges. This law is being put to a statewide referendum this fall. Your choices are to vote for or vote against. Do you intend to vote for providing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at Maryland colleges?” Tossing in the loaded phrase “illegal immigrants” not once but twice makes it very clear which answer the station wants you to choose.

The most comical part of this is the response to queries made by Baltimore Sun media columnist David Zurawik, who first broke the story of the push polling (and documented the sleazy wording in the questions). WBFF’s general manager Bill Fanshawe told Zurawik the survey was part of the station’s strategy to become “interactive with viewers” and the calls were part of taking their web-site-based “Question of the Day” (also not a valid polling technique, since it’s a self-selecting audience) to a “higher level.”

So noted! It used to be that you had to turn on your television and switch the channel to Fox 45 to be misled. Now, thanks to their new strategy, we know that isn’t enough and that they’re coming for us. In the same 1986 book—“And So it Goes:” Adventures in Television—Linda Ellerbee joked that if newspeople like her and former ABC anchor Sam Donaldson couldn’t go on the air with the news, they’d probably go door to door—it’s that ingrained in a journalist’s blood.

We should all feel bad for Barnd: The boss made him ride the elephant. But worse still, his station is the one that expects us to deal with what it left behind.

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