David Zurawik

Some answers on WBFF Fox 45's strange robocalls asking about ticks and Gov. O'Malley

As if robocalls didn't have a bad enough reputation in the world of Baltimore media and politics thanks to consultant Julius Henson's activity in the last gubernatorial election, along comes WBFF (Channel 45) Monday night with its own questionable computer-generated calls into hundreds of thousands on Maryland homes.

And the calls continued Tuesday. I received one at my home in Baltimore City both days. Raquel Guillory, director of communications for Gov. Martin O'Malley, also received one at home in Howard County Monday night around dinnertime.

More from Guillory in a moment -- and the possible political intent of calls from a station owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has a history of support for conservative causes, asking questions in such a way that might be damaging to a Democratic governor. Or, might they be aimed at trying to gauge support for petition ballots opposed to the Dream Act and same sex marriage in Maryland?

At first, I though the Monday-night call, which was voiced by station anchorman Jeff Barnd and encouraged viewers to watch the 10 o'clock news on WBFF, had something to do with this being the last week of May sweeps. Some stations have been known to use any edge they can to artificially inflate ratings during audience measurement periods.

But the second part of the call is where the real issues appear to be raised. It involves what Barnd labels as a "survey" in which the respondent is asked a series of political questions about O'Malley. And the language of the questions is loaded enough so that it could create an unfavorable attitude toward the governor -- or at least elicit answers that might appear to support on an-air story showing a large segment opposed to him. The common political term for such a slanted survey is "push poll."

The robocall starts out asking viewers a couple of questions about being bitten by ticks and contracting Lyme disease, which is transmitted by the insects. But while viewers were then urged to watch the late news to hear their comments during a story on the disease, the tick and Lyme queries were only the warmup or, what some see as the come-on for a much lengthier series of questions on Maryland politics and O'Malley, which to them seemed like the real purpose of the call

The questions were about the Dream Act, The Civil Marriage Protection Act, Maryland income taxes being raised, O'Malley's "legislative agenda" and whether the governor backed the Civil Marriage Protection Act and the Dream Act to "further his political career"? In the call, Barnd describes the The Civil Marriage Protection Act as the "focus of his (O'Malley's) legislative agenda."

Here's that question: "Governor Martin O'Malley made same sex marriage the focus of his legislative agenda. Do you think he's using the issue to further his political career?"

Here's the one on the Dream Act: "The state legislature passed and Governor Martin O'Malley signed a law that would allow illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition at Maryland colleges. This law is being put to a statewide referendum this fall. Your choices are to vote for or vote against. Do you intend to vote for providing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at Maryland colleges?

WBFF general manager Bill Fanshawe said he and Scott Livingston, the VP of news operations for Sinclair, hired an "outside advertising company" to conduct the poll. He declined to name the firm or say where it was headquartered, but the phone number that respondents were asked to call Monday night was the 202 Washington exchange.

Fanshawe said the poll was a result of the station's ongoing efforts to be "interactive with viewers." He said the station has long had a "question of the day" on its website, and was just taking that strategy to a "higher level."

He said the calls were made to "hundreds of thousands" of Maryland homes, and that the station has received 60,00 responses.

When asked about having the station's anchorperson voicing the questions, Fanshawe said, "We asked our anchorman to do it so that people would know it was legitimate when they heard his voice."

Fanshawe said he thought the langauge used to ask the questions was "straightforward."

Guillory, who said she was speaking from her "perspective as the communications director who received a phone call, rather than for the governor's office," has a very different take on the calls.

Describing the call that came into her home during the dinner hour Monday, Guillory said, "I immediately heard the recognizable voice of Jeff Barnd asking me about Lyme disease, so I chose to participate. And somehow, I ended up on a path answering questions about my boss's political aspirations."

In Guillory's professional opinion, "The average person could have clearly been swayed by the way the questions were worded. Being in the thick of it here, I know what's going on, but the average person could have clearly been swayed."
"I've certainly heard of questionable tactics being used before, but I had never been asked to participate in one of these kinds of polls, so it was a little eyebrow raising for me," she said Tuesday afternoon.

When asked if she was surprised to have a news organization and anchorman involved in such a poll.

"Sadly, I'm not surprised," she said.

When pressed for an explanation of that, she added, "I'm not surprised because of where the call came from."

Trying to make sure I would not misrepresent what she she seemed to be suggesting, I said, "Do you mean you are not surprised because Fox 45 is owned by Sinclair and the company has a history of having supported conservative politicians and causes?"
"Yes," she said.