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IRI Response to The New York Times' “A Chaotic Kenya Vote and a Secret U.S. Exit Poll”

January 30, 2009

Washington, DC – Once again a New York Times “investigative” story, written like a sloppy high school term paper, has slipped by any editors worthy of the newspaper’s former reputation.  The January 31 piece “A Chaotic Kenya Vote and a Secret U.S. Exit Poll” charges that IRI withheld a December 27, 2007, Kenyan presidential and parliamentary elections exit poll at the behest of the U.S. government.

The story has the signature Times investigative desk construction – high drama, minimal sourcing and ignoring any facts that don’t support its preordained thesis.  As investigative desk editor Matthew Purdy has stated, “Once we decide to launch a project, we have a good record of bringing home stories…the road almost never leads to a dead end.”

IRI has a longstanding reputation for programmatic excellence, as evidenced by the Times’ regular coverage of the Institute’s work – including our polling.  IRI had no political motivation to suppress the poll; if anything, having worked with defeated candidate Raila Odinga for more than 20 years, IRI had motivation to want Odinga to win.

What IRI was not going to do was release a flawed poll to reach that goal.  Immediate poll results were unavailable to IRI because post-election violence in Kenya prevented data reaching Nairobi for almost three weeks after the balloting.  Once the results did reach Nairobi on January 17, 2008, IRI and James Long, a Kenya-based polling consultant with the political science department at the University of California at San Diego, attempted to resolve discrepancies in the data.  As early as January 19, former IRI employee Ken Flottman – who in the Times story charges that IRI withheld the poll at the behest of U.S. government officials – stated in an email that “This is enough to tell me that we need to check against the actual questionnaires to ses [sic] what they do and don’t say.”  On January 25 Flottman wrote “I am inclined to think that recoding the whole thing from scratch here would be the way to go.”

Those problems with data entry led a U.S.-based pollster, who at IRI’s request double-checked the poll, to state that IRI could not release the results with full confidence.  On February 7, the Institute released a statement saying that “IRI does not have confidence in the integrity of the data and therefore believes the poll is invalid.  The Institute will not release a poll it believes is invalid…”  After IRI had been able to reenter the data – which produced different results than the original flawed entry – we released the poll.

IRI has requested that the State Department’s Inspector General – who reports solely to Congress – review whether the Institute withheld the poll at the behest of U.S. government officials as charged by The New York Times.  The Inspector General will have access to a far greater range of relevant people and documents than the Times did, but the Times could not be bothered to await the results of that investigation before running its piece.

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