The Outstater: Walter Mitty Polls the Governor

June 19, 2015

“’Quiet, man!’ said Mitty, in a low, cool voice. He sprang to the machine, which was now going pocketa-pocketa-queep-pocketa-queep. He began fingering delicately a row of glistening dials. ‘Give me a fountain pen!’ he snapped. — “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber in the March 18, 1939, New Yorker


WALTER MITTY IS ALIVE AND WELL editing the Indianapolis Star. This week — in his head — he launched a daring multi-faceted preemptive raid on enemy forces within the governor’s staff, all in the nick of time, on the day before the governor began his reelection campaign.

First came the Star news desk’s embrace of opinion surveys from a political journalist and an opponent of the governor. The governor is not only unpopular, the pollster informs us, but we know exactly why: He is lackadaisical in pursuing expanded rights for lesbians, gays and transgenderists. In alerting the governor in time to change his course, the Star — in its own mind — saves the day.

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa . . .

Next came artillery strikes in the form of an analysis piece and an opinion column asking questions of the when-did-you-quit-beating-your-wife variety: 1) “How Can the Governor Save Himself” and 2) “How Will the Governor Respond to Polls Showing Ongoing Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) Fallout?”

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa . . .

The Star’s editors — at least in their own minds — are single-handedly rescuing Indiana and the governorship from a fall on the wrong side of history. Again, it was all quite admirable and all quite imaginary. It might as well have been concocted driving Mrs. Mitty to her appointment at the hairdresser.

Even so, hints of real life could be glimpsed through the gauze of self-aggrandizement. A voice is heard asking whether the opinion survey took into account a “social desirability bias.” Measuring views on public policy affecting unknown individuals of private sexual dispositions would seem to be a tricky business for journalists. People avoid appearing judgmental even anonymously over the phone.

There is a sophisticated marketing tool, the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, that can measure this long-marked tendency of survey respondents to answer questions in a way that will be viewed favorably by others. The bias takes the form of over-reporting “good” responses and under-reporting “undesirable” ones.

It would be interesting to know, then, given the spin of recent news coverage, how an opinion survey asking Hoosiers anything about the RFRA would score on the scale. A better gauge of true public opinion might be how many Hoosier politicians are printing bumper stickers in sync with the Star’s agenda.

Not many? Perhaps candidates are reading other opinion surveys, those advising caution in reordering the structure of a 240-year-old constitutional republic.

Most troublesome to some of us is that a monopoly newspaper would try to push its readers and ultimately the governor into a critical, irreversible policy position using dubious opinion samples rather than an actual public discussion. Here is the Star editor in his best shame-on-you voice:

“Passage by the General Assembly and a signature by the governor to add legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity are the only actions at this point that can repair the political damage. Can Pence get there? It won’t be easy for him, and for some of those around him. Still, for a leader who has repeatedly and adamantly said that he abhors discrimination, it ultimately should be an acceptable step, intellectually and emotionally.”

Acceptable, perhaps, if the governor is living in a dream world of politically crafted polls and journalistic flimflam.

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa BAM!

That would be the sound — in some minds — of the Star hitting a wall of accountability.

— Craig Ladwig



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