Let Them Play the Games  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2008

Let Them Play the Games   

February/March The medias New Hampshire fiasco reflects a broken model for campaign coverage.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It's a shame the Betty Ford Center isn't bigger. Because the idea of shipping the entire national news media out there for some serious therapy is very attractive.

Well, maybe not the entire media. Just every news organization and every journalist with any connection to presidential campaign coverage.

The media's addiction to polls and to predicting the future is obviously not new. Critics have railed against it for years. The compulsion to be ahead of the game even caused the television networks to make the wrong call on the 2000 presidential election (see "How They Blew It," January/February 2001).

You'd think that humiliation was so huge that it would serve as a cautionary whale (hat tip to "Juno" for that great line) as well as a cautionary tale for the political punditocracy. But no.

The media's New Hampshire fiasco was more, much more, than yet another major embarrassment. It was a plea of nolo contendere. In the starkest of terms, the premature Obama coronation and Clinton obituary showed all too clearly that the current political coverage model is utterly broken.

The poll mania, of course, is just the starting point. It fuels the constant need to be out front, to foretell the outcome, to be completely inside. It's not just horse-race coverage. It's picking the winning horse well before the starting gun is fired.

The determination to advance the story, to break new ground, is basically a healthy one. It's an impulse that has led to a lot of terrific journalism. The problem is confusing polling data with facts. Polls are, as they say, a snapshot of opinion at a particular moment, not an ironclad predictor of how people will behave or what will happen.

While often reliable guideposts as to what's likely to happen, they are not absolute truth. This is particularly the case when dealing with volatile political primaries. As you may have noticed.

What happens now is that poll results and insider speculation combine to create conventional wisdom, or better yet, "wisdom." This wisdom is accepted as gospel. Only a fool or a naf would question it.

Let's see, there was the long-running absolute certainty that Hillary Clinton had locked up the Democratic nomination. She had that big early lead in, yes, the polls. Her campaign was an error-free juggernaut. It almost seemed as if the contest should be halted like a one-sided boxing match. Stop the bleeding, declare it a TKO and save all the money and energy that would be frittered away letting actual voters get involved.

Then came the Iowa caucuses. With head-spinning speed, Barack Obama became the unstoppable force and Hillary Clinton became toast. Cue the Clinton-era death knell.

Five days later, Clinton was Comeback Kid II.

And check out the Republican side of the aisle. John McCain was left for dead as dead as Hillary Clinton after Iowa--last summer when his campaign's financial woes forced him to slash the staff. Rudy Giuliani (R-9/11) was at the top of the heap. Mike Huckabee? Who?

After one caucus and one primary, McCain was approaching front-runner status, Huckabee was a contender and Giuliani was on the sidelines waiting for the Florida primary. Then Mitt Romney cleaned McCain's clock in Michigan.

It's not as if the scenarios du jour are based on gossamer. Hillary Clinton did have a big lead in the polls for a long time. Obama did have a post-Iowa bounce and those huge, enthusiastic New Hampshire crowds. John McCain did have serious money and staffing woes. Mike Huckabee was, as Bob Dylan might say, a complete unknown.

The problem comes from assuming that what's true at any given time will be true forever. Election campaigns are dynamic. Things change.

It's like writing a story on a basketball game when it's 16-6 early in the first half. Or before the opening tip. No matter how sophisticated your scouting report, you don't really know what's going to happen next. It's why they play the games.

In the fast-paced world of cable news and the Internet, the pressures are enormous to solve the riddle, right now. Cable has all that time to fill. The Web is the world of instant gratification. Who wants to hear about uncertainties and nuances and shades of gray? And, as the recent unpleasantness reminds us, newspapers our best newspapers are hardly immune to the fever.

There was a delicious exchange between Chris Matthews and Tom Brokaw on MSNBC the night of the New Hampshire primary. Matthews was clearly distraught that his btes noires, the Clintons, looked as if they had survived to fight another day. The Hardballer churlishly rejected the notion that even if Clinton lost narrowly, it was still a remarkable Lazarus-like performance for her.

Then he agonized: If we can't believe the polls, how, oh how, will we be able to pick the winners in advance?

Brokaw, like a very patient uncle, explained that there was another alternative. Rather than "stampede" the process, wait for the actual results to come in.

He may be on to something.

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