You probably have read some of the results from the 2015 Louisiana Survey conducted by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab. Of course, what you learned might have been based on where you read it. The headlines and conclusions were all over the place—and some were just plain misleading. (I would encourage legislators to get their own copy of the survey.)
Perhaps the blame for this confusion should be shared by those in the media who were careless—or had an agenda—and those in the public who responded to poll questions based on bad information or mistaken perceptions.
The survey of 980 Louisiana residents was sponsored by the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. Michael Henderson now heads it.
The survey last week released data about views on taxes and spending cuts in the state budget. But if you compare the knee-jerk, abstract views expressed on general questions to the specific questions and responses on “which taxes?” and “what cuts?” you will realize the public view is contradictory. That’s why the front-page headline The Advocate ran was inadequate. It read, “Survey: Most OK with some tax hikes.”
While it is true that a majority said tax increases should be part of the budget shortfall solution, the detailed questions show The Advocate’s headline is just not true. In fact, no tax surveyed had a majority supporting it, not even an increased tax on cigarettes, which was supported by 50% of respondents.
I contacted Henderson about the tax questions, and he said, “If all you say is that most support raising taxes, you’re missing a fundamental part of the story.”
Ironically, the same story in The Advocate was posted the day before online and had a different headline, which was accurate. It read, “LSU Survey says cut spending, but not to education, health care or infrastructure.” Some editor either erred or had an agenda in changing the headline. (Often the writer does not handle the headline.)
The story by The Times-Picayune on NOLA.com had a different take on taxes and was more accurate. The headline said, “Don’t tax me, tax the guy behind the tree: how Louisiana residents want to solve budget crisis, according to study.” This story explains in the opening paragraph that the majority favoring taxes in general is large, “as long as no specific proposals are put before them.” There is the kicker.
So, what does the survey say and what does the public want? Henderson told me he felt the conclusion from the survey, after seeing what folks wanted and what they are willing to pay for specifically, was the public wants “something for nothing.” Henderson told me he almost has sympathy for the Legislature, as the public wants more but is not giving the Legislature many options.
They want them to make cuts but then object when it comes to cutting specific areas important to them. And they talk of taxes, but none of the taxes mentioned received a majority supporting an increase. In fact, when asked, it seems everyone thinks “they” are paying their fair share but some think “others” aren’t.
What many did seem to agree on was that government is wasteful. The survey showed respondents believe, on average, 44 cents of every state dollar is wasted.
But what the survey also learned and may be hard to swallow is, “The public is poorly informed about most fiscal facts.” Contrary to actual revenue and expenditure trends over the past seven years, a majority (54%) believes that state taxes have gone up over this period. On the spending side, nearly a third (30%) say state government spending has “gone up a lot.” Facts are, taxes have gone down and net spending has not been increasing. We now have 30,000 fewer state jobs. The public is not paying attention and often goes by perception only. That is dangerous.
I spoke to Kirby Goidel, who directed the survey from 2002 to 2014, and who is now a professor and fellow at Texas A&M, about the contradictions by respondents in the poll and wrong conclusions drawn by some in the media. Goidel said, “For one, survey data are often contradictory and ambiguous, suggesting the public believes more than one thing at the same time. Second, people like to read into the data. And third, of course, public opinion is often based on misinformation or ignorance (e.g., not realizing taxes had actually decreased). Those reasons are why interpreting poll data is best done with an understanding of context—and when you have other polling data for comparison purposes.”
Bottom line is, be careful what conclusions are drawn from any survey (even by the media) and realize that while opinions of residents matter, they may be misinformed or change quickly, like the wind. Leaders need to be grounded, look at facts and educate people—and then make sound decisions for the future, even in the face of opposition.
THE TWO HATS OF BOB
Bob Mann is an LSU journalism professor who also wears the hat of a paid columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Mann often seems very angry (even a “hater”) about Gov. Bobby Jindal and anyone associated with him. That includes those appointed to the LSU Board of Supervisors, of whom I am one. He is always on our case calling for us to resign or such. Mann is actually a nice guy, but he is a liberal Democrat who worked for former Sen. John Breaux and then Gov. Kathleen Blanco, so maybe that is the source of his hatred.
Mann is one to take full advantage of free speech and faculty tenure as he pontificates in his columns on all that’s evil. Hey, this is America, and I respect that right. But I am getting the feeling that Mann switches his hats often and there may be an ethical question with his two roles. Not a good example for Mann to set for LSU students.
I asked a former seasoned journalist about the ethics of a faculty member who has a second job as a journalist and writes about his university. He said, “Every good journalist knows that you cannot ethically cover the institution that pays your salary and the people who supervise the work you do for that salary.
The ethical equation doesn’t change if a reporter vilifies those people. Who is to say the reporter’s self-interest isn’t involved? Would the reporter be better off if the person they criticize was fired? Did the administrator make the reporter angry one day and now it’s a chance to get even? When journalists don’t recognize this fundamental aspect of journalism, everything they write, on any topic, lacks credibility.”
I wonder if Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss (who sits on the LSU Manship School Board of Visitors) has thought about that conflict? It is obvious Mann hasn’t. (I suspect I will now be the target in one of Mann’s blogs. Oh well, it won’t be the first time.)
ADDENDUM: As I predicted Mann is blogging about this column and I am the target. But he should present the facts accurately. He did not. First, he implies I wrote this in reaction to his column last Friday demanding that the entire LSU board resign. The fact is, I wrote my editorial the day before his column appeared and sent it to our printer.
Second, he is confusing my 33-year career as a publisher who writes an editorial (opinion column) with my service on the LSU Board. I do not speak for a 16-member board, and this editorial view is not a board issue—it’s my job as a publisher—and Mann knows the difference. (Do Mann’s columns represent the views of the Manship School or are they simply his?) Finally, Mann is falsely claiming I am trying to suppress academic freedom of all faculty. The issue raised was about his role as journalist and the ethics of writing about his employer. Mann conveniently leaves out these details in many of his latest posts.
I stated above in my editorial that I support his right to free speech and academic freedom. I have always done that at LSU and with columnists and writers in this publication. Two weeks ago in Business Report, Mann even had a full-page feature sharing his outlook on politics.
Let me state the facts, Mann has no evidence of anyone being denied their academic freedom.
THE RIGHT PERSPECTIVE
“Blessed is the man who thinks no better or worse of himself when he is scorned and despised by men than when he is loved and honored by them. For a man is what he is in God’s eyes and no more.”
—St. Francis of Assisi