Conflict of Interest

When I was a suburban housewife and mother in Plymouth, Minnesota, I used to participate once or twice a year in market test groups.  General Mills was right down the road and I enjoyed trying products before they hit the shelves.  But the tests weren’t limited to just General Mills’ products.  Over the years I discussed diapers, a coating for potatoes, television commercial screenings and various desserts.  The one experience that continues to impact me today is when I was recruited to discuss frozen yogurt.

A representative from the market research firm telephones potential participants and asks them a series of questions in order to get representation from the required age groups, gender, etc.  During one of these calls, I was asked, “Do you like ice cream?”  Wow, not only do I love ice cream, one day I walked into a Dairy Queen and the woman behind the counter asked me if “I wanted the usual?”  So as a confirmed ice creamaholic, I was thrilled to be a part of a market test group for ice cream, secretly hoping there would be test samples.

I arrived at the designated room where the other group members were waiting to be led in a discussion by a moderator. My hopes were high and my taste buds were primed.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that not only were there no samples, the product for discussions was frozen yogurt, not ice cream.  My limited experience with frozen yogurt was not good.  There used to be a frozen yogurt bar by my work.  You were given a dish of a yellowish, vanilla-like frozen substance followed by a variety of toppings to garnish this questionable treat.  No matter how many toppings I tried, there was always an unpleasant sour aftertaste.

Now in my defense, I was never asked how I felt about frozen yogurt, only ice cream.  But since I was there and being paid for my feedback, I did my best to be a positive, willing, yet honest contributor.  The moderator invited the participants to gather around the table to discuss frozen yogurt, while unseen observers followed the discussion from behind a two-way mirror.  No samples were given out (heavy sigh), so all I could bring to the discussion was my unpleasant sour aftertaste experience.

It soon became clear that the moderator was not only from California; he also had a vested interest in moving the discussion in a pro-frozen yogurt direction.  One of the questions was, “If I was going out for ice cream, would I rather have a healthy alternative, like frozen yogurt?”  Well, I would never go out in the frozen tundra to partake of a substance that leaves an unpleasant sour aftertaste.  Besides, one of the benefits of being a Minnesotan is that I get to wear baggy sweaters six months out of the year and therefore don’t need to worry about healthy alternatives.  Not surprisingly, the moderator did not care for my answers or me and by the end of the discussion; he clearly demonstrated hostility, refusing to even let me speak – stating, “I already know how you’ll answer.”

Because of this comical, yet painful experience I learned the importance of neutral moderators and systems.  But it is difficult being neutral.  As human beings we are driven by a variety of thoughts, feelings and values that impede our ability to remain neutral.  Recent examples of the struggle for neutrality were the organizers of the Republican presidential candidate forums. Well, hosting candidate forums at the national level isn’t cheap.  So when the media took over this task from nonpartisan, nonprofit groups like the League of Women Voters (LWV), it is understandable that we inadvertently moved the focus away from voter education to attracting more viewers for higher television ratings.  The rules and procedures for candidate forums run by the LWV are understandably strict.  For voter education, there needs to be complete impartiality so that the viewer or voter is seeing the qualifications of each individual candidate fairly and equally.

When the focus is to generate television ratings, it makes sense to look at poll numbers. In order to give the people what they want, the popular candidates (those with high poll ratings) should be situated front and center along with more time in front of the camera.  Give the people what the polls tell them and they will tune in.  But this approach isn’t and shouldn’t be mistaken for voter education. It is simply entertainment.

So when young voters rant about the unfairness of the recent presidential candidate debates, I feel their pain.  They rightly question:

“How can they give preferential treatment to certain candidates based on poll numbers?”

“Why was a candidate labeled not qualified to participate in the debate at Drake University?”

“How can media outlets consider themselves neutral enough to sponsor a debate, yet turn around and endorse one of the candidates?”

“Is it possible to remain neutral in reporting if you’ve endorsed one of the candidates?”

These are all good and insightful questions. It generates hope that the next generation may find a new and fair venue to bring back voter education.

© Copyright 2011  Fawkes-Lee & Ryan.  All rights reserved.


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2 Responses to Conflict of Interest

  1. Jorgen Rasmussen says:

    I think the DM Register sponsored (with others) at least one debate and later endorsed Romney. That in itself is no problem. The questions are who decided that a candidate couldn’t participate? Who decided what questions to ask whom? Who did the questioning. For one debate it was people with ABC News–not from the Register. It what does sponsorship consist? If all that the Register did was pay part of the costs of having the debate, that shouldn’t be a bar to endorsing a candidate later–especially since no more debates were being held in Iowa. This really becomes a question of whether newspapers should endorse anyone. If they do, can they continue full and fair coverage of the other candidates? There may be an issue here, but not in the way you’ve presented the matter.

  2. Brian L. Millard says:

    A very good piece. A similar thing has occurred with a neighborhood umbrella group that was started by Bob Mickle and a few other neighborhood activists. Des Moines Neighbors used to be an organization that advocated for the neighborhoods. A group that individual neighborhoods could come to and bring a problem to get help with or just put the others on notice that something was amiss.

    Sadly, it was slowly run into the ground by those that had an agenda, not what was best for the group. Once it hit bottom, some opportunists took control and turned it into a quasi political action group and had the treasury donate to a cause that wasn’t necessarily good for the community as a whole. Once Des Moines Neighbors became financially involved in a political cause, it torned down a path that will never allow it to be the same in my eyes.

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