Friday, August 17, 2007

Why all the diversion and secrecy?

Today brings word that Utahns are being subjected to some nasty push-polling, and supporters of the voucher referendum are admitting their role in it.

They don't use the word "push-polling," and they're secretive about exactly what they asked, and who they asked, and why they asked, and they don't comment on the nastiness of it; they say they're just trying to gauge public opinion. In this instance, however, they appear not to be gauging public opinion on their voucher referendum, but on same-sex marriage. The "push" part of the poll "pushes" Utahns to associate same-sex marriage with teachers, because teachers oppose the voucher plan.

What does this "pushing" have to do with the voucher referendum? It has nothing to do with the substance, but much to do with the politics. So, just as we found in yesterday's response by Rep. Steve Urquhart to a Utahn asking about the details of the voucher plan, voucher supporters are diverting attention from the facts of the voucher plan.

We are reminded of a very old truth in bad business and bad politics: If the product we offer is so awful that no one will buy it, we have to convince consumers that the product our rival offers them is even worse.

In June, the Deseret Morning News conducted a poll -- not a "push-poll" but an objective one -- which said clearly that 57 percent of Utahns would vote against the voucher referendum in November, while only 36 percent said they would vote for it. Six percent hadn't yet decided, but even if all six percent fell in support of vouchers, the plan would still fail at the polls.

This result shows that, if you inform voters about the details of a plan they aren't inclined to support, you run the risk of making them informed voters -- and you lose your voucher plan. The coverage of the legislature's fast-track of the first plan, and the immediate amendments collected in the second plan, then the back-and-forth with the Utah Board of Education, the Attorney General's office and the Supreme Court, all yielded a single result: Utahns already know enough about the voucher plan that they oppose it, but the more they learn about it, the less they like it yet.

So, to convince us that their voucher plan is in our best interests, the voucher salesmen have to invent a boogeyman and convince us that this boogeyman is worse than anything the voucher plan represents. And what is worse than vouchers? Same-sex marriage, of course.

Never mind that no one is promoting same-sex marriage; as the old Wizard of Oz said, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." Instead, these pro-voucher salesmen cajole us: Just trust us that same-sex marriage is worse than vouchers, so you should vote for vouchers.

In fact, word has already spread among those who got these calls. And according to those who listened to the push-poller, apparently none of the callers spent any time explaining the voucher plan's details.

That's unfortunate, because the voucher plan is a big deal, and the voucher plan is on the November 6 ballot. When voucher supporters don't spell out their case for the plan, they leave a lot of room for others to fill in the gaps, to point out that the voucher deal takes millions of dollars in public money away from our public schools, whether sooner or later. And that the voucher plan uses public dollars to pay for a separate, private education system, essentially giving one more tax break to the rich.

And that it really does nothing to improve the quality of education for the 90-plus percent of Utahn kids who attend public schools. Ultimately, it looks like the voucher plan will increase class size in public schools, since schools are budgeted -- and teachers are hired -- according to student enrollment. When you cut student enrollment by a handful or two, you can lose a teacher, and the rest of that teacher's kids will be shuffled into other teachers' already-crowded classrooms.

See, when you break it down like this, you can understand why the voucher salesmen want to avoid talking about their own product, and instead want to convince you that the teachers living in your neighborhood are scary, scary boogeymen.

Undergirding this strategy, when you think about it, is a secret contempt for Utahns. The sponsors of this push-poll have to believe that Utahn voters are gullible, easily led and easily MISled, and that they can't be trusted with voucher salesmens' secret plans and secret tactics.

When Salt Lake Tribune reporter Julia Lyon asked the group that sponsored the push-poll for a list of the questions asked in the poll, the group's leader refused to share it. It's a secret. When Julia asked one of its board members if he supported asking Utahns about divisive issues, or about push-polling his fellow Utahns generally, he wouldn't comment on either point. There are apparently a lot of secrets to keep.

Where else recently has this sort of secrecy been noticed? It was just two weeks ago, when Paul Rolly at the Trib poked around to find who was behind the 30-second radio ad claiming that LDS scripture supports the voucher plan. Paul found the ad's producer, Crowell Advertising, but Crowell said the ad's sponsor wanted to remain anonymous. So Paul checked out the website identified in the ad and found it tied to a group called "Concerned Parents." Being a concerned reporter, Paul called them. "When I called a telephone number attributed to that group," Paul wrote on August 6, "I reached 'Jeremy' who declined to tell me who he was or who was in the organization."

In the case of the radio ad, that secrecy has drawn more attention than just an article by Paul Rolly in the Trib. Paul followed up last week. "Anyone who collects and spends money to promote an issue for the purpose of influencing an election must register with the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office as a Political Issues Committee," he wrote. "The people who paid for these political ads have not registered." Utah elections officials are giving them a couple of weeks to register, he said.

If we boiled down today's news, what messages would we find there? One might be that the teachers living in your neighborhood are scary. Another might be that folks sponsoring the voucher plan, and the radio ads, and the nasty-push-polling, have a lot of secrets they don't want us to learn. But surely, the most important message is that we shouldn't pay any attention at all to the substance of the voucher referendum, because we might not like what we find in it.

1 comment:

Oldenburg said...

it is sad really. Rep. Urquhart maybe wrong about vouchers, but he would be a much better face for voucher supporters than these clowns.

This "values" crap doesn't work with Utahns any more...just ask not-congressmen John Swallow and LaVar Christensen.