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Transcript:

FROM THE MOYERS FILES: Bill Moyers talks with Daniel Yankelovich, June 14, 2002

BILL MOYERS: Opinion polls are said to be the voice of America. Few companies, programmers, politicians or Presidents will take any action without a focus group as a companion. Daniel Yankelovich is considered by many to be the founding father of public opinion research. For 40 years he's been plumbing social experience through probing our hearts and minds.

THE NEW YORK TIMES and TIME magazine are among his beneficiaries, and he founded the research organization Public Agenda. His life's work won him recognition as one of the 10 most influential people of the 20th Century in the area of public policy. Welcome to NOW.

BILL MOYERS: When we were talking earlier before the interview you — said that people feel very marginalized. What do you mean by that?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well Americans want a voice, that — increasingly, I think one of the great changes of the past 20 years is this insistence, it's not only a desire, it's an insistence that the public has in having a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. And people feel they don't have that voice, that they are — they're not consulted, they're not listened to, their views don't really count, their concerns are not really at the top of the public agenda.

BILL MOYERS: But how can that be when almost everyone is subjected repeatedly to focus groups, to public opinion surveys — all these polls that are taken? How can people feel as if their opinions are not being collected, assessed, and executed?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well, if you're looking to get votes, and if you're looking to make promises and commitments — then you want to find out how to talk to the public. It doesn't mean that you're going to really listen, it doesn't mean that you're gonna be responsive.

I think the key is responsiveness. People don't feel they have all these polls but, you know I've done a lot of market research, and in doing market research companies are responsive, they have to be to survive, but the political leadership does not have to be truly responsive.

BILL MOYERS: Why? What accounts for that divide?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well you know you have — political life now — you have a lot of political consultants, the consultants tell you how to spin issues in order to get votes. And that's not real responsiveness. You have the media that are concerned with the breaking news, and not their long term issues that we've been talking about. I remember years ago when Dick Cheney was in Congress, and we were talking to him about not listening to the public. He got indignant and he said, "What do you mean? I spend 90 percent of my time listening." Well he wasn't listening to the public, he was listening to the lobbyists, he was listening to the special interests. Making the assumption that the lobbyists are speaking for the people.

I mean you referred to me as "the ole fella" at the b--.

BILL MOYERS: "The grand ole man."

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Very hard to take, very hard to take.

BILL MOYERS: It takes one to know one.

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: But, you know in — that rule, — I don't feel that AARP represents me. I'm a grandfather, I'm a parent, I have a broad set of interests, but I'm not payin' AARP to represent my broad human interest, I'm payin' them to represent my most narrow, selfish interests. So you have a politics in which individuals have a breath of humanity, but the organization of advocates and lobbyists are a terrible way to do politics.

BILL MOYERS: One of the reasons I as a journalist see so much discontent is that is that we talk about these problems, we address them, we report on them and yet people feel nothing ever really changes.

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well that's why people feel marginalized. And it is the system that is very difficult to change. The democratic party used to have special interest politics as their ideological basis that--.

BILL MOYERS: The labor unions and the working class and the....

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Yeah we were talking once to Walter Mondale about this where he...

BILL MOYERS: Former Vice President.

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: ...where he felt that the sum of all the special interests add up to the general interest. It's not true. It's a fallacy, it doesn't happen. I mean you know for someone in my position who's been talking to Americans for 40 years, you see that what people are saying and what they're feeling are not represented either by the political interest groups, the special interest groups, or by the media. So you have — you have these different Americas.

BILL MOYERS: That raises the question, why are the shouting matches on television so popular with people?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well, one thing is they're entertainment. I mean radio and television are entertainment media more then they are news media. And I think another thing is — I was thinking about the fact that the news side of things — the habit of breaking news, the journalistic predilection that what editors say, we go after the breaking news, probably takes about five minutes a day to cover the breaking news. But you have the media on for 23 hours and 55 minutes in addition to those five minutes. So you have I think, a preoccupation of the news media with certain conceptions that just don't fit.

BILL MOYERS: Your assumption is that people really want to know about the basic issues. And yet that flies in the face of people who kept reading the NATIONAL INQUIRER during the Clinton scandals with Monica Lewinsky when they said, "We're tired of this."

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Yeah, well I mean...

BILL MOYERS: Is the popularity ....

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Oh Bill come on, you can be tired of it and be, and be fascinated at the same time. I mean gossip is gossip. The fact...

BILL MOYERS: Touché, touché.

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: ...you have the fact that people are entranced by gossip, doesn't mean that they're not passionately interested in the issues that affect their lives. And they are, I mean they — I just can't understand why there's the assumption that people aren't interested. They couldn't be more interested. You have in the country this crust of mistrust. And that kind of pull because if people feel that their voice doesn't count, then you know they're not going to show the kind of interest — takes about 30 seconds to penetrate that crust of mistrust. And underneath it there's this hunger for community, there is this passionate interest in the issues and in what's happening in the country.

BILL MOYERS: Mistrust, where does that mistrust come from?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well, it's one of the byproducts of of the convergence of 9-11 and Enron is to make — have made the public feel very vulnerable, and you know as you — you would understand. But in that vulnerability they don't feel that the people who are supposed to be looking out for their interests are exactly doing so more looking out for their own interests.

BILL MOYERS: I guess that is one reason why Mr. Cheney, whom you referred to earlier, does not want an investigation of what happened last summer, when the investigative reports came in. And I guess that's one of the reasons why he doesn't — I don't guess, I know, that's one of the reasons why he doesn't want a full investigation of the energy situation where the industry had access to policy.

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Yeah. Well see that's what makes people so mistrustful, because the watchdogs are asleep. And...it isn't just the FBI and the CIA, it's the Red Cross, it's the Catholic Church, it's the Wall Street investment people that are supposed to be giving you objective advice to help you in your investments, it's the auditing firms that are supposed to protect the public against the cheating.

So Enron — the aftermath of Enron — is not just a rogue company, it's the watchdogs, the system. We have so many of them and they all seem not to function.

BILL MOYERS: So when the watchdogs become lapdogs there's nobody to bark for the people who have been exploited?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Yeah, and you know not only lapdogs, but become sort of interested in — their own doggie pursuits — interested in the interests of the insiders, in the interest of the institution rather then in the people the institutions are supposed to serve.

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Yeah, and you know conflict of interest. It's been meaningless the last couple of years in Wall Street and other places. It's the concept didn't even exist, hardly paid lip service to it, or just lip service. I think, Bill that is one of the big changes that the — everybody becoming insiders.

And then becoming interested, become concerned with their interest as insiders.

BILL MOYERS: What's your advice to people on reading surveys and polls? How do we become, as citizens, poll savvy?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Good question. I think that if I had to make one single suggestion it would be to ask yourself the question, when you look at the poll results, is this an issue where people have made up their minds? You may not know, but if you see inconsistencies, if the wording of the question changes the response. And you can ask yourself, have you made up your mind about Social Security, or Medicare or — drugs for seniors, or more money for schools and things of that sort. If you haven't made up your mind, the poll and the... people that are polling are like you and they haven't made up their minds, you can't rely on the poll results.

The Clintons were misled by poll results that showed that 71 percent of the public supported the Clinton healthcare plan when it first came out, and the real number — probing beneath the surface was something like 35 percent. That's the difference between success and failure. But people hadn't made up their mind about it. So that's when polls can be very misleading.

BILL MOYERS: Instead of polling for Time and the New York Times let's say you were the assignment editor for either of those national organizations. And you wanted to ask your reporters to go out and cover stories that had been neglected by the mainstream media, where would you send them?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Good question. The — I think the first thing — place I would send them would be to the — to inner city schools, because school reform which is so critically important to the country, is faltering in — implementation. Policy is okay, but in the implementation it's falling down on the job. The — testings going on, but preparing the kids to improve taking the test, the resources aren't being put in, they're — not sure about how to do it. And when you take tests, and they fail then of course it's even more demoralizing. So that would be one place.

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: I would go to towns in Connecticut, like New Haven, and Hartford, because Connecticut is the richest state in the nation, and over the last decade — median family income has declined.

I've — heard labor union leaders refer to it as the hourglass economy — when you have ever increasing numbers of well to do professionals, and you have growing numbers of people at the bottom who are really out of the system, and who's standard of living is going down, as in Connecticut. And you have this-- what used to be the bulk of the population in the middle class, really kind of disappearing.

So that's — you know in an in this hourglass economy if you have — if — we're if the education system is geared for the people who finish four years of college, that's 25 percent, what about the other 75 percent, what happens to them in a world economy? And with — elites, and experts who are more concerned with their own institutional interest. You know it's not a good situation.

BILL MOYERS: In THE MAGIC OF DIALOGUE you call on us to focus our imaginations on what kind of society we want. How do we do that?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: I think we do it by talking with one another. I think that there are truths that you get at through scientific inquiry, all of the facts, all of the experiments, all of the things we're trained to do in a sort of technological, scientific world. But the human truths you don't get at that way. The human truths come from seeing issues from a variety of points of view and perspective. From seeing it from the wisdom of different individuals. That's real learning, that's the kind of knowledge we don't appreciate.

And we find when we bring average Americans together that they listen to one another, that they can contribute and that they can build, develop a vision of what they want our society to be like. And it's really inspiring.

BILL MOYERS: Well this has been very inspiring and informative to me. And I thank you very much for coming.

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well, thank you very much.

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