Just Say No

I don’t plan to read Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff any time soon. (To confess, Jonathan Eig’s bio of Muhammad Ali is my current sustenance.)

Yes, Wolff’s content, and his uncommitted relationship with accuracy, has caused its own firestorm. For me, however, the lessons to be learned are in public relations, not narrative pseudo-journalism.

Mistake #1: Wolff’s White House access, which created much of the book’s tastiest morsels, seems to be the result of organizational chaos (the Trump White House’s sustenance). With no clear permission or denial, and a vague endorsement from Trump, Wolff was granted access to observe, while Bannon assumed Priebus approved, while Priebus assumed Kushner … , etc.

A clear center of decision-making authority in these access requests, though an impossibility in the Trump White House, is the remedy.

While it’s disturbing to consider that these political professionals were more concerned with their own survival than the President or the country, such is the amoral worst of high-level politics.

It should not be accepted as reasonable, professional behavior, regardless of how close to the apex of political power it occurs.

Mistake #2: A peremptory Internet search would have alerted Trump’s White House staff that Wolff was not a good fly-on-the-wall candidate.  His take-down pieces on everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Christopher Hitchens were there for the Googling.

In 1990, I was director of public information for Azusa Pacific University. A local news radio personality asked if we were interested in hosting a discussion of Malathion, a controversial insecticide being sprayed to control an invasion of Mediterranean fruit flies. Sounded good, so I agreed.

The personality, it turned out, was shock jock Tom Leykis, at his last stop before nationwide syndication. I should have known better, but I didn’t.

Alerted by a frantic APU alum, I turned on Leykis to hear him announce the anti-Malathion rally at Azusa Pacific, timed for an actual spraying. Attendees would stand in the open and dare the helicopters to spray them. Standard academic discourse.

After I canceled the “rally,” Leykis characterized my reversal as a weak-spined concession to alumni pressure. I suppose that was charitable, considering the real reason was my inept unprofessional stupidity.

In the same way, allowing an author like Wolff such access is a doubly-incompetent media relations breakdown by the White House, thus creating an avoidable public image crisis.

My master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton is in public relations, particularly agenda building in the media, and many of my students are public relations majors. I try to pass along advice to them from my experience and studies, while teaching them their required journalism courses.

The best advice I give them overall is, “just say no.” They don’t have to do journalists’ jobs for them (echoing journalists’ complaint that they don’t do law enforcement’s work for them, either). PR folks don’t have to allow journalists access to private property, even if a crime is being investigated. And they certainly don’t have to give a best-selling author access to secure government offices, due diligent Googling or not.

Sure, overall, they will do their organizations wisely by counseling access at appropriate times and not locking down the media 100 percent. It’s a tough balance to work out, but it’s possible.

Their main responsibility is to their organization, however, and an automatic “yes” to media access can cause much more damage than an initial “no”–as the Bannon-Priebus-Kushner brain trust demonstrated in creating this Fire and Fury.


Trump’s Survey Data Is (Not Surprising) Also Biased

In defending his proposals to end Muslim immigration, Donald Trump cites research that says 25 percent of American Muslims agree that violence against the U.S. is justified, and 51 percent want American Muslims to have the option of being governed by Islamic law.

The poll that generated this data, commissioned by the Center for Security Policy, is unreliable and filled with survey error — or to employ a more popular term, crap.

In my Reporting classes, I teach my students how to evaluate survey data.  This survey fails on two counts that I talk about in class — one mathematical and the other conceptual — that render it statistically worthless, except as a gathering place for flies.

First, the math part (and yes, we’re starting with the math because if I put this second you would change the channel before you got to it).

The survey uses what we call a non-probability sample, which means that you cannot generalize its results to the population as a whole.  To swap the negatives, with a probability sample (a random sample being one example), you can generalize the results, with caution, of course.

A typical survey that employs a random sample involves mail, telephone or direct interview of a pre-selected sample.  The CSP survey was an online survey on a web site, a voluntary survey, that anyone could click on and answer.  Not only is the sample flawed mathematically, but the pollsters cannot even verify who took the survey.  For all we know, CSP staff could have clicked on the survey themselves and answered it in a way that advanced its organization’s initiatives.

You used to see these all the time, often on the entry page of news or sports sites like CNN, FOX News and ESPN.  They would put some current events or favorite athlete question on the page and let you click on it.  But it always had a disclaimer that this was not a scientific survey.

You also see these now on Twitter, with its polling feature.  It too is all in fun.  The results are meaningless for getting society’s pulse.

I also warn my students to note who is conducting the survey, to see if they have an interest in the results.  For this reason, sorry, but surveys conducted by politicians are usually biased and self-serving, worthless beyond the politician’s interests.

Speaking of which, this survey of Muslims!  As this report from Foreign Policy points out, the Center for Security Policy has a political agenda that it was seeking to advance with the survey.

The CSP actively promotes an anti-Muslim message, and the survey seems slanted to be consistent with the agenda.  Its executive director, Frank Gaffney, has a reputation for making extreme, even outlandish comments about political opponents.

That immediately casts suspicions on the results, which can be expected to support CSP’s agenda.  According to this report from Georgetown, that bias shows up in survey wording and in how the results are interpreted.

By comparison, the most recent numbers available from Pew Research Center (whom Trump also cited, though vaguely), 86 percent of the Muslims surveyed said tactics such as suicide bombing were rarely or never justified.

As with so much of Trump’s message, the numbers are hard to believe, once you look at them closely.