Monday, February 14, 2011

The Anti-Streetcar Bias of the Enquirer: A Smoking Gun Example

Everyone says this all the time: The Enquirer is biased towards Republicans and the Suburbs, and has a strong anti-city contempt. I tend to think the first two are very true, but the third less so, except with certain segments of the daily newspaper's staff. The main bias of all for profit media is in favor of controversy/sex/crime (anything that attracts eyeballs like a car wreck,) but that has become mostly a given in our popularity driven society. Being against the Streetcar has been an editorial stance of the Enquirer for a couple of years, so the Enquirer's bias in its coverage of that issue has long been a question.

If you buy all of that or not, you can't deny this week's clear smoking gun bias in the form of a Barry Hortsman article entitled Poll: residents oppose both streetcar and ballot. Please note that headline. It is where the core of the bias lies.

In case you missed the news last week, a poll was sent to the Enquirer from Chris Finney, Mr. Anti-Cincinnati and fearless leader of the anti-Cincinnati group, COAST. That poll was conducted by Republican Paul M. Fallon. I say he's a Republican because it was something brought up by Twitter posts and CityBeat's reporting, but not something you read in Hortsman's article.

Where the bias lies is in the headline. This poll was conducted County wide. Yes, county wide. The term used by the Eqnuirer in the headline is "residents." I didn't know the Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati were synonymous How can they not be lying? Well, that is where the bias happens. Hortsman focuses in on the number of City Residents included in a poll, a number which is a subset of the poll, something we might call an internal. How do you trust a poll that is created on a county wide basis, then adjusted for a city only topic and consider that to be good polling? Well, you do it when it provides you with an answer you want, which is why Chris Finney pitched the news story and the Enquirer took it. There is more, howerever.

The story linked above was posted at 8:52 PM on February 10th, 2011. The first story about the poll was actually first written for the Enquirer's politics blog with a headline that read "A new streetcar survey," which was published at 10:17 AM on February 10th, 2011. That blog post was updated once at 12:15 PM with more information clarifying some of the reports from Fallon's survey.

So, the initial gut of Carl Weiser (the author of the blog post) wasn't to spin the story, it was to be honest. Carl knows where he got the press release from, Chris Finney, and in the blog post rightfully reports that Finney is an "anti-streetcar activist. I'm also betting that Weiser knows of Paul Fallon as a Republican pollster, which I'm also surmising tempered the headline of the blog post. I think Carl Weiser is a good journalist and I think his coverage, for a Republican newspaper, is fair, within reason at least. That's why I think that headline on the blog post appears the way it did. Something didn't smell right about the poll, and Carl knew it.

Eight hours later we get a snow job. I don't know who gets the blame more, Barry Hortsman himself or his editors, but we get a biased and knowingly misleading headline and article. Eight hours later is plenty of time for Barry to do a Google search on Fallon and read this profile (read the right sidebar) to learn he was director of public opinion research for the Ohio Republican Party. It also doesn't take five minutes for a green reporter to know that you are going to get a Republican conclusion from a Republican pollster. Hortsman knows that the Hamilton County Republican Party is against the Streetcar. So, putting two and two together shouldn't have been too much to do in eight hours. So, does that leave laziness as the cause instead of bias? I'm not going to say lazy, although in a time crunched reporter's life, that often is a big problem. Instead, I lay this at the feat of Hortsman's bias and/or the bias of his editors. I don't know if Carl Weiser is his editor, but I'm going to guess no, based on the variation in how this poll was presented over an eight hour period.

Headlines, in case you forget, are very important in the news media. A large portion of readers only read a scant few articles, but read all of the headlines. They draw conclusions based on those headlines. In this case a false conclusion would be reached by anyone reading the Hortsman article's headline. Further false conclusions would be drawn from the article it self, lacking any context as to the source of the poll and back ground of the pollster. Not determining why this poll was conducted was the most damning element not to include. Are we supposed to honestly believe the pollster wanted to throw this in for the hell of it? He took the time to write up a press release because it seemed like a good thing to do? Yes, and I have deal on the Suspension Bridge that you just can't pass up.

I sent a request to Barry Hortsman for comment and answers to a list of questions relating to this story early Friday morning. I copied all of the editors I believed would have been responsible for his work. As of the publishing of this post, I received no response, except that one of the editors was out of the office.

I don't expect the Enquirer to be perfect. I do expect them to try and be fair and not do something so obviously biased. Instead, Hortsman should never have written the story. Weiser's blog post was enough. Instead the article likely reached the print edition and mislead a much wider audience.

At this point everything Hortsman writes has to be second guessed. I wouldn't trust him getting a 'dog bites man' story right, let alone the streetcar. The new editor of paper, Carolyn Washburn, should take the time to think about reassigning who ever is responsible for this biased article. If the blame lies at hers or her boss's feet, then I'll be making a habit of this type of blog post.

Additional info from WLWT, which has the press release generated from Fallon Research.


  1. You weren't the only one to email the Enquirer with complaints about that story Griff. I sent a complaint regarding the earlier story that Weiser wrote, and CC'ed Margaret Buchanan and other senior editors, as well as Kevin Osborne at City Beat. Here was Carl's reply:

    ----- Forwarded Message ----
    From: "Weiser, Carl"
    To: Cincy Capell <[redacted]>; "Buchanan, Margaret" ; "Washburn, Carolyn"
    Cc: "Horstman, Barry"
    Sent: Thu, February 10, 2011 3:58:13 PM
    Subject: RE: Biased Streetcar "Poll"

    Mr. Capell

    Thank you for your comments.

    It’s always right and fair to ask about the background, motivation, and financing of pollsters; as you can see from the blog post we are asking those questions as well.

    A nexis check of Mr. Fallon shows that his polling - often about transit or local issues - has been cited in a variety of media, including the Columbus Dispatch, the St. Petersburg Times, the Raleigh News & Observer.

    Reporter Barry Horstman is writing a story and we will be sure to include any relevant information that we can confirm.

    We appreciate you taking the time to contact us.

    Carl Weiser
    Government/Public Affairs Editor
    Cincinnati Enquirer and
    312 Elm St.
    Cincinnati, OH, 45202
    (513) 768-8491

    Well, not only did Horstman fail to "include any relevant information that we can confirm" about Fallon, but he wrote an article so biased that it brings William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism to mind.

    A few observations on the poll and the Enquirer's conduct in reporting it:

    -The poll was conducted by a paid GOP pollster.
    -That pollster refuses to state what client he was conducting polling for.
    -People who were surveyed have come forward and stated that Fallon's poll was in fact a push poll, asking leading questions about both the streetcar as well as Chris Bortz.
    -Fallon's firm describes themselves as "paid advisers for corporations, levy committees, interest groups and political candidates". They are not neutral pollsters like companies such as Gallup are, rather they are professional spin doctors.
    -The pollster refuses to release his polling methodology.
    -The poll was tiny, it surveyed 502 people, less than 300 of which are city residents, in a city with a population of over 330,000 persons. That alone makes the poll irrelevant.
    -Horstman acts like a stenographer who types up COAST press releases when he shamelessly allows Finney to uncritically spin the poll to his benefit.
    -Why did Horstman refuse to print any information on Fallon's background?
    -The Enquirer published the Horstman's story one day before the cutoff date for public comment to ODOT regarding proposed State funding for the streetcar project. This was the likely motivation for COAST's phony push poll, and is the reason why the Enquirer published it, to make one last attempt to motivate anti-streetcar zealots to email negative comments to ODOT.

    WLWT aired a much more balanced story on the poll:

    WCPO, WKRC & WXIX completely ignored the poll and did not report on it at all.

  2. Uh oh. Imam Griff has issued a fatwa against Barry Horstman.

    How dare anyone question the sacred streetcar, or insinuate that others doubt its divinity.

  3. COAST, go back to your bigoted bubble where calling someone "Islamic" is an acceptable derogatory, ignorant & childish attack on those you disapprove of). Your seventh-grade maturity level is always clearly on display in your writing, whether it is picking on the homeless, gays, non-Christians, or liberals, or when you are pathetically posting comments on your own blog while pretending to be other people.

    You have shown again that you only have rhetorical commentary to add to a substantive discussion. Your best effort was to call someone names (a Muslim! Oh my!). You lose.

    Don't trip over your dragging knuckles on the way out.

  4. Coast's comments are always defensive and childish.

  5. That's TOAST's Mark Miller making the snide 6th grader taunts, he's the king of juvenile insults. Too bad that Mark isn't as enthusiastic about paying his bills. Mark disn't pay his kid's private school tuition bill, and Xavier High School had to sue him in order to collect the money that owed them. Xavier garnished Mark's bank accounts for over $10,000. How embarrassing. From public records:

    Between Miller's financially irresponsible actions, Toast's enthusiastic endorsement of the Paul Brown Stadium Deal, and the irresponsible actions of TOAST chairman Jason Gloyd- who had his home foreclosed by CitiMortgage and then auctioned off by the Sheriff for failing to pay his mortgage- the TOASTers aren't setting a good 'fiscally responsible' example for the rest of us to follow. Fiscal Responsibility For thee, But Not For Me" should be TOAST's new motto.

    Gloyd's story can be read here:

  6. ↑Ouch, that's gotta hurt.

  7. Horstman was the one who wrote three full pages in the Enquirer's Sunday Forum section in October on the streetcar. Granted the Sunday Forum is the opinion section, but I would say the articles had a clear anti-streetcar take. Kind of hard to say Horstman is the one who should write "news" pieces on the streetcar.

  8. In Minneapolis (where I'm from), there was quite the hot debate over our first light rail line that connected the Mall of America, the airport, and the downtown core. Now 7 or 8 years later, ridership has more than tripled what was projected, we have opened another commuter rail, another light rail line is currently under construction, and two others in planning phases. Ten years ago, there were so many nay sayers and detractors. You don't even hear them any longer. I hope this gets built and is a HUGE success. In MPLS we have learned that is the best way to shut them up!


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