03/08/2013 - Andrew Kohut presided over the Pew Research Center's burgeoning agenda from 1995 until he stepped down as president at the end of 2012. He continues to provide counsel on political polling and global attitudes research in his new role as founding director. In a conversation with Paul Farhi, he looked back on the center's formation.
Farhi:What was it like coming to Pew?
Kohut: I'll never forget the first day, the first survey issues. We called it the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The first political survey showed that Steve Forbes had drawn even with Robert Dole in New Hampshire in the Republican primary in January 1996. And all of a sudden there was this explosion of telephone calls. All my reporter buddies were calling Pew saying, "What is the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press?" And that was the first exposure, I think, that The Pew Charitable Trusts got to the amount of attention that these surveys would generate.
Farhi:Has the nature of the place changed much since you started?
Kohut: The values that we have are the persistent ones that we've had over the years. We're interested in going in depth. We're interested in rigorous work. We want to study the most important issues of the day. We want to take a long-term perspective and establish measures that we can track over time to show the ways public opinion, public values, and behaviors are changing.
Farhi:The Pew Research Center describes itself as a nonpartisan fact tank. What does that mean exactly?
Kohut: It means that we are not being influenced by the political parties or special interest groups that have agendas. We don't take commissions; no one comes in and buys a Pew survey. We're interested in producing factual information about public attitudes, behaviors, demographic trends in the areas in which we study.
Farhi:Staying true to your mission is harder than ever in a world that's getting more and more partisan, especially in the news media. Many say there is a left-wing take on the news and a right-wing take on the news.
Kohut: We're helping out in a world in which news organizations that hold the same values that we do have fewer resources to do the kind of work that we do…. Many of the media polls that were around are gone.
Farhi:How do you decide what to study?
Kohut: Part of the skill here is to not only do research well but to figure out what to do, what's important to do, and what's do-able. And we don't go out and do things that we think are interesting but we can't get a handle on.
Farhi:Looking back, what highlights resonate for you?
Kohut: I think a lot about the ways we have looked at the behaviors and attitudes of news consumers to show how the world has changed. In 1990, our research, which I wrote about in an essay called "The Age of Indifference," showed that young people didn't know much about the world. In 2005, we redid the survey and showed that even with the emergence of the Internet, with much more information available, there wasn't much change.
I think there's less imperative to know about world events today. If you came through the Cold War, Vietnam, the Bomb in the 1960s—really serious stuff—you had to stay connected to what was going on in the world. That has disappeared.… There's not as much need to know, and for young people there are so many other distractions.
We do quarterly surveys about what people know about the world, and they are really sobering. But they bring home a statement that Gallup made years ago that I live by. And that is, "The American public is short on the facts but long on judgment." In the end, they tend to make good judgments based on the facts that they have.