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Gallup Poll's Frank Newport: Public opinion towards the FBI

Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll and vice president of the Gallup Organization in Princeton, New Jersey. He is in charge of the Gallup Poll assessment of American public opinion, which has been continuously measuring public moods and attitudes in this country since the 1930's.

CNN: Good day Frank Newport. Welcome Newsroom. We're pleased to have you join us today.

FRANK NEWPORT: Good to be with you!

CNN: In light of Senate hearings today looking at management issues within the FBI, how high or low is public confidence in the agency?

Ashcroft concerned about missing FBI weapons, laptops  

NEWPORT: "Mixed" is our interpretation. I should point out that we don't have survey data from this morning, after the most recent revelations. After last week, we found that Americans, for the most part, still had moderately favorable opinions of the FBI. Frankly, we were surprised. Given the publicity about Robert Hanssen and the McVeigh evidence, we thought there would be more unfavorable opinions than we found.

To be specific, about a quarter of Americans say their opinion of the FBI is unfavorable. About seven out of 10 say their opinion is favorable, but just moderately favorable, not very favorable. That last point is what has really changed over the years. Back when J. Edgar Hoover was still director of the FBI in the '60s, 84 percent of Americans had a very favorable opinion of the FBI. Now that's down to just 27 percent. Americans, in other words, still are modestly positive, but no longer apparently revere the FBI like they used to.

CNN: Do you think the news today that the FBI is missing fire arms and laptops would affect the poll results?

Message Board: FBI hearings  

NEWPORT: Well, we never know. We'll probably poll again shortly and find out. I was interested to note that when a Newsweek poll in May asked people very specifically whether the bungling of the McVeigh evidence caused them to have less confidence in the FBI, only about a third said yes. In other words, a majority said that even that didn't shake their opinion. But sometimes these things build up, and when there is a steady parade of bad publicity, it usually ends up affecting American public opinion.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Frank, do you think the media underestimates the thoughtfulness of the American people? I think most people understand that the FBI is a large organization and mistakes will happen, just like in any large organization.

NEWPORT: Well, more generally, I, over the years, have come to have a great deal of respect for the thoughtfulness of the American people. We absolutely find that Americans make up their own minds, and don't jump on some bandwagon, just because it's receiving a lot of publicity. Perhaps that's why we don't have huge numbers who have moved into the unfavorable column when it comes to the FBI. But again, we'll have to wait and see. I did hear some more thoughtful analysis this morning that suggests that the hue and cry over the missing files and weapons may be somewhat exaggerated. We'll see how the story plays out, then measure Americans' opinions. By the way, we do know that Americans have more confidence now in their local and state police than they do in the FBI.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Don't you think, though, Mr. Newport, that Hoover's publicity machine produced the very favorable public reaction and suppressed negative information about the FBI?

NEWPORT: That is certainly possible. All of our American institutions operated in a different media environment back then. Just as we didn't hear a lot about John Kennedy's romantic life when he was president, we didn't hear a lot about the FBI's flaws. But again, that's what we're measuring, the fact that we are in a new environment in which a lot more information quickly becomes public is probably why we have seen quite a few of our confidence measures go down over the years.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What part of the downturn in opinion do you think can be attributed to the attorney general and the problems faced over the last decade?

NEWPORT: Well, I don't know. Ashcroft hasn't been in office that long, of course, so perhaps the question refers to Reno. We do know that we saw a deterioration in the strongly favorable opinion of the FBI at the time of Watergate, just after Hoover's death. We have not asked about the FBI regularly, because it wasn't in the news, so we don't have a year-to-year measure that would allow us to pinpoint exactly when confidence dropped the most.

CNN: What do Americans think about the immigration policies that Mr. Bush is considering?

NEWPORT: We just finished an analysis of attitudes toward immigration, and find that to some degree they are mixed. My interpretation is that Americans would not be particularly happy with the idea of legalizing the status of millions of illegal immigrants who have come from Mexico. The reason I say that is that we have just a small percent of Americans who want the overall level of immigration increased. Most either want it decreased, or to stay about the same.

Additionally, we find that Americans think that, in a number of dimensions, immigrants have made life worse, rather than better -- particularly such issues as crime and school systems. I also think that when the economy gets worse, Americans turn more negative towards immigration. So, for all of those reasons, I would not expect to see high levels of approval if the administration were to move forward on a plan to provide amnesty to undocumented Mexicans living in this country.

CNN: And how are Americans feeling about the economy right now?

NEWPORT: Americans are still down in their attitudes about the economy, compared to last year. There's no question about that. However, at the same time, the negativity is nowhere near as bad as it was in the early 1990s. If we look at a graph, it's probably best to say we have come back down closer to where we were in about 1996 or 1997. Americans' attitudes about the economy are off of the highs we saw in 1999 and 2000, but not down to the lows that, for example, cost Bush the elder his job in 1992. We will keep measuring the economy on a regular basis, of course, since things change from week to week. We'll keep you updated.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: McCain and our local representative held a campaign finance public rally here in Boston two weeks ago and, embarrasingly, almost no one attended. Do you see any desire in the polls of the American people for campaign finance reform?

NEWPORT: Campaign finance reform is simply not a high priority for Americans, and never has been. There is no fervor out there for campaign finance reform. Americans simply, I believe, don't believe that it would do much good. The interesting thing is that the public supports the concept in principle. A big majority of Americans as recently as last week said they like the idea of Congress passing campaign finance reform legislation. But it simply doesn't excite the people. The fact that it's been shelved indefinitely now probably isn't creating huge tides of discontent. That's probably why you didn't see standing room only crowds at your local rally.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Frank - what do the polls show on the Patients' Bill of Rights?

NEWPORT: People love the idea in concept. Partially, that's because it sounds so good. Who can oppose something that has the words "bill of rights" in it? Americans don't like managed care operations in general, although ironically, most Americans seem pretty satisfied with their personal health care. We asked some fascinating questions about the patient's bill of rights recently, and found that a majority of Americans admitted that they had no idea what the distinctions were between the Democrats and the Republicans approach to this. I'll be frank with you, so to speak... I'm not sure I do, either. But nevertheless, the public assigns the passage of the patients' bill of rights a relatively high priority, and therefore I think there is some pressure to get something done along those lines.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What about polls on embryonic stem cell research?

NEWPORT: I can summarize polling fairly simply on stem cell research. A variety of surveys conducted by Gallup and others show that the first reaction of Americans is to favor the continued federal funding of stem cell research. Some of our analysis shows that Americans have moral qualms about the whole concept, but nevertheless, a majority tell us they believe it is necessary that this type of research go forward. That's a summary of Americans' initial reactions. Our data do show that, not surprisingly, a lot of Americans don't consider themselves highly knowledgeable in this area. Therefore, I believe it is possible that public opinion can change in the months ahead as the debate continues.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

NEWPORT: Something we think is good news... people talk about the fact that maybe Americans aren't as well-informed as they used to be, but we just found that the exact same percent of Americans know how many senators there are from each state as knew 50 years ago, back in 1951. That's the good news. I guess the bad news is that that figure is 60 percent, then and now. Which means that four out of 10 Americans, now and 50 years ago, still can't tell us how many senators there are from each state.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Frank Newport.

NEWPORT: Good to be with you, and I look forward to being with you in the future.

Frank Newport joined the chat via telephone from Princeton, NJ. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Wednesday, July 18, 2001.

• Gallup Poll

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