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Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006 04:52 pm

Muddy waters

A simple way to clear up the Ascaridis quote dispute

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his staff have tried to muddy the waters on the question of that now-infamous $1,500 check from his friend by seizing on the flip-flopping of the friend’s wife, Beverly Ascaridis.

Beverly Ascaridis, you will recall, got a state job about the same time that her husband, Mike Ascaridis, wrote the governor a check for $1,500. The governor has admitted to directing his chief of staff to find Mrs. Ascaridis a job but claims that the check was for his daughter Amy’s college fund. He has so far refused to provide any supporting documentation that the check was ever deposited into a college fund, however.

Mrs. Ascaridis spilled the beans about the check to the Chicago Tribune, telling the paper about how she became suspicious when she found the canceled check and how she took it to the FBI because it looked hinky to her.

Then, after she and her husband hired a high-profile lawyer with ties to Blagojevich, she changed her story, claimed that she’d been misquoted and even argued that she’d never said that she hated the governor with every fiber of her being, as the Tribune had reported.

A week or so ago, at what was probably the most disastrous press conference of his career, the governor did a flip-flop of his own: Blagojevich said the check might have been for his other daughter’s christening.

During the press event, the same Tribune reporter who broke the check story tried to ask the governor a question about his new alibi. The governor turned to the reporter and said of Beverly Ascaridis, “She’s questioning your facts. So, I mean you should get your facts right. She has raised questions about your facts and your integrity.”

There’s a simple way to clear all this up: Release the tape. Most reporters carry little tape recorders around with them, and, considering the detailed quotes attributed to Mrs. Ascaridis in the original story, it seems more than likely that the Tribune has a recording of her answers. The whole thing can be posted on the paper’s Web site.

I want to make it clear that I happen to side with the reporter on this matter. He’s a good journalist, and I don’t believe for a second that he would make up a story.

Too often, though, the people who run big media outlets such as the Tribune tend to think that when they publish something, everyone has to take it as God’s word that the story is true and nobody should ever dare question their integrity.

But when the governor of a large state who is already facing serious legal trouble contends that a powerful newspaper deliberately falsified a highly damaging story about him, the newspaper ought to lay all its cards on the table.

Release the tape — and if there is no tape, release the notes.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago TV station WMAQ (NBC5) should take another look at the poll they published earlier this month.

I compared independent polling company SurveyUSA’s latest poll with the Sun-Times/NBC5 poll and concluded that it might be possible that the media companies’ pollster drew his survey sample solely from Chicago residents and not the entire state, as was claimed in the stories.

The latest SurveyUSA poll has Blagojevich leading Judy Baar Topinka 45-39 statewide and 59-23 in Chicago. The Sun-Times/NBC5 poll had the governor improbably ahead of Topinka 56-26 statewide.

A Chicago-only survey that excluded the more Republican-leaning Cook County areas might also help explain Republican Cook County Board president candidate Tony Peraica’s horrible performance in the same Sun-Times/NBC5 poll. Chicago Democrat Todd Stroger was ahead of suburban Republican Peraica in that poll 52-19. Other polls have shown a far closer race, including (according to reports) Stroger’s own polling.

I want to stress here that sometimes polls are just wrong. Almost no poll has more than a 95 percent chance of being within the margin of error, so there’s about a 1-in-20 chance that any given poll is what’s known as an “outlier.”

That’s most likely what happened here. The pollster has a long history in the business and a wide variety of clients, but the poll was so grossly out of sync with reality that a closer look seems warranted. The pollsters should also seriously consider using more than 400 respondents in the next poll. That’s way too few for a state of this size.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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