Zogby’s Fiery Fiction

Joel Mowbray
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Posted: Dec 20, 2005 9:05 AM

When I reported in the Washington Times last week that brand name pollster John Zogby had neglected to disclose relevant information regarding a survey on Wal-Mart, he issued a strong rebuke.

Trouble is, it was largely fictional.

Employing the old trick of setting up phony straw men and then knocking them down—as opposed to refuting what was actually said—Zogby claimed that my column had “assert[ed]” that his “poll for WakeUpWal-Mart.com was slanted because I have testified as an expert witness in cases against Wal-Mart.”

It’s anybody’s guess whether or not the poll was “slanted.”  That’s why the column made no such claim.  Without the full poll results, rather than the handful Zogby and his Big Labor-backed client chose to release, there’s no transparency that would allow anyone to even attempt to make such a judgment.

Neither Zogby nor WakeUpWalMart.com spokesman Chris Kofinis responded to e-mail requests for the complete list of questions and corresponding results, despite an ethical obligation to do so under the rules set out by the National Council on Public Polls.  While interviewing him for the Washington Times column, Zogby agreed that there was an ethical obligation to release all questions asked in the survey, not just the ones they listed in the press release.

Is there something to hide?  Who knows?  But there’s certainly cause to ask given that Zogby didn’t disclose when the poll results were released that he had pocketed roughly $90,000 serving as an expert witness for people suing Wal-Mart, and also since WakeUpWalMart.com refused to reveal what all was asked in the poll.

It’s probably a safe bet that this columnist was the only journalist who requested a peek at the complete poll, as opposed to just the sections that WakeUpWalMart.com liked.  Partly this distinct lack of inquiry can be chalked up to journalistic laziness, but more likely the primary culprit is that few question the independence or objectivity of a Zogby poll.

The Zogby imprimatur on any poll gives it instant credibility, as Zogby as successfully positioned himself as high-minded and above-the-fray, which helps explain his many contracts with media outlets, such as Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and NBC News.  (Speaking of disclosure, many of his media clients report on his polls without mentioning the business relationship.)

News that Zogby had failed to disclose his potential bias spread quickly on the Internet precisely because of Zogby’s lofty reputation.  Had he been perceived as just another partisan hired gun, no one would have cared.  Then again, if that were the case, the media likely would’ve yawned at his Wal-Mart poll—and he wouldn’t have been able to command the premium Zogby price.

Which helps explain the ferocity of Zogby’s response to last week’s column.  He wrote that this columnist “insinuat[ed] that, because Zogby International conducted a survey for a client that opposes Wal-Mart, and because I have provided expert testimony in lawsuits against Wal-Mart, I must certainly have an anti-Wal-Mart agenda and surely ‘cooked’ the poll against the retailer.”  The column made no such allegation, implied or otherwise.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

Somehow, Zogby ignored the following explicit caveat: “Of course it’s entirely possible that Mr. Zogby could take significant cash from people suing Wal-Mart and then turn around and conduct an objective poll.”

One other misrepresentation by the respected pollster was that the column “leaves the reader with the impression that, in 1997, I was polling the New York City mayoral race for the New York Post at the same time I was working for candidate Rudy Giuliani.”  Yet in the sentence to which he refers—an excerpt from a Village Voice article—clearly contains the word “after.”  As in Zogby collected “$54,000 in payments from the 1997 Giuliani campaign after polling the race for the [New York] Post.” (emphasis added)  What part of “after” leaves the reader with the impression of “same time”?

Zogby did make at least one truthful statement in his written response, that his “testimony had nothing to do with Wal-Mart’s business practices, but rather was focused only on the efficacy of polling” to determine whether the retailer had engaged in discrimination.  But most expert witnesses are not there to make a sweeping statement directed at the other side, but rather to fill a specific, targeted niche. 

Either way, the fact remains that he took money from folks suing Wal-Mart, then pretended as if no one would or should care when judging the objectivity and credibility of his WakeUpWalMart.com poll.

Zogby might well be deserving of his reputation as an accurate pollster.  Though he bellyflopped in the 2002 and 2004 elections, he aced the 1996 and 2000 presidential races.  But something still smacks of shadiness when he takes money from an interested party, then releases supposedly objective poll results without disclosure—and he pretends as if there’s not even the possibility of potential bias.

Is it really so much to ask that if Zogby insists on being seen as more independent and objective than other pollsters that he at least be expected to adhere to what most would consider common sense ethics?