Off Target  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

Off Target   

Why is the media consensus so often wrong about political campaigns? And isn’t there a better way to cover elections?

By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     


Every presidential campaign of recent memory has produced its share of Dewey-Defeats-Truman press embarrassments, but Campaign '08 has been particularly rich in bogus media narratives. Ever since the races began in earnest last year, the blown calls have just kept on coming. Many of the storylines around which the political press has pegged its coverage haven't even come close to falling within a reasonable margin of error.

According to the media consensus:

• John McCain's campaign for the Republican nomination, beset by weak fundraising, staff disarray and conservative hostility, was all but finished. "How much worse can it get for McCain at this point?" asked Tucker Carlson on MSNBC last August.

• Hillary Clinton's march to the Democratic nomination was a near-certainty. "Is Hillary Clinton unstoppable?" teased CNN last summer.

• Rudy Giuliani was the man to beat for the Republican nomination, despite his anything-but-conservative positions on a range of social issues. Giuliani eventually quit the race with fewer votes and delegates than Ron Paul, who was all but dismissed by the media.

• Mike Huckabee, ignored by most reporters during the first half of 2007, supposedly didn't have the ground organization to pull off a victory in the Republican primary in Iowa. He won in the Hawkeye State.

• Barack Obama's candidacy was stagnating last fall because his message of hope and unity was too bland. "At a time when Obama needs to be winning voters away from Clinton, instead he's been playing defense," said the Associated Press in late October.

• Clinton, five days after losing to Obama in Iowa, was headed for certain defeat in the New Hampshire primary, an outcome all but sealed by her momentary display of emotion at a campaign stop a day before the vote. "She's So Yesterday," headlined the Boston Herald at one point. Clinton won in New Hampshire.

• Obama's endorsement by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy rated blowout coverage and pronouncements of a new Camelot. "Yesterday, the ideals of one of the nation's most beloved presidents were handed down for a new generation," rhapsodized the Washington Post. Except Clinton went on to win Massachusetts, the Kennedy family's home state, by 15 percentage points.

• In the lead-up to Super Tuesday, the Republican contest was a two-man race between McCain and Mitt Romney. Huckabee won five states and claimed almost as many delegates as Romney, who dropped out of the race.

• Clinton was again headed for a crushing defeat on Super Tuesday, the day the Democratic race was supposed to be finally settled (neither happened). Then, when Obama won 11 contests in a row after Super Tuesday, the new storyline was that Clinton was facing her last stand in the March 4 primaries and caucus in Ohio and Texas. Instead, she won the popular vote in both states and enough delegates to fight on.

And it's still only primary season.

As shabby as this record has been, it's perhaps more remarkable how little remorse and reflection it has inspired. In one of the few journalistic mea culpas after the New Hampshire debacle, the top editors of the Politico, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, wrote, "If journalists were candidates, there would be insurmountable pressure for us to leave the race. If the court of public opinion were a real court, the best a defense lawyer could do is plea bargain out of a charge that reporters are frauds in exchange for a signed confession that reporters are fools."

Which raises some basic questions: Why have so many been so wrong so often during this campaign? Why the urge to predict and prognosticate the course of events rather than simply describe them? And what, if anything, should anyone do about it?

In theory, at least, coverage of this year's presidential campaign figured to be the most extensive and exhaustive ever. Literally hundreds of mainstream print and video reporters are on the campaign trail, abetted (and often second-guessed) by thousands of bloggers. Virtually every utterance, appearance, ad, poll and strategem is picked over, often in real time. Reporting tools are better and faster than ever. Small, cheap video cameras make it possible to record every scripted and unscripted public moment. YouTube, which didn't exist four years ago, provides an instantaneous and universal venue for raw, unfiltered access to the candidates (would anyone have been aware of Mitt Romney's awkward and pandering "bling-bling" comments to a group of young African Americans just a few years earlier?). It's unlikely that any campaign in history has been subjected to more media scrutiny than this one.

And yet more does not seem to have equaled better. "Most of the trends in political coverage are headed in the wrong direction," says Mark Halperin, Time magazine's senior political analyst, who has been covering presidential campaigns since 1988. "There are a few silver linings, but the trends are negative. I defy anyone to say it's getting better overall."

The accelerated news cycle, Halperin says, has increased the demand for news and analysis of the campaign without a corresponding increase in thoughtfulness, perspective — and more bodies to gather and collect the facts. Reporters, he says, now work harder to answer the wrong questions — who's winning the daily image and message battle, who's ahead in the horse race — rather than who'd make the best president.

"Everyone who is on a campaign plane now is asked to do much more than four, eight or 12 years ago," says Halperin, who coined the term "Gang of 500" to describe the insular nature of political journalism. "If you're a reporter with the New York Times, you're not only just trying to produce a top-quality story on deadline for the newspaper, you're also being asked to write for the Web, to make an appearance on TV, to file a blog item, and so on. It's very tough to break out of the bubble when you're trying to keep body and soul together to make your next deadline. I don't know if Jack Germond or David Broder or Johnny Apple in their prime would be able to do the kind of work they did if they had to file three stories a day to the Web. It just defies the capacity of human beings to keep up."

One problem begets another: To meet the physical demands of covering a campaign (and in reflection of buyout-decimated newsrooms), leading news organizations are sending younger and less experienced reporters into the field. Halperin, the former political director of ABC News, says that the biggest turnover may have occurred within the newspaper industry; leading papers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal have almost completely made over their political staffs in the past few years.

This means the current crop of political reporters "doesn't have the context of covering several campaigns," says former NBC News Political Director Elizabeth Wilner. "They don't have the long view. They're very much focused on the next five minutes. They need to blog about that, or put up a video about that. So the coverage lacks depth and historical focus. They just don't know a different approach."

Of course, the campaign's media bubble — dozens of reporters traveling together, day after day — can create its own self-reinforcing conventional wisdom. Andrew Cline, editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader, saw the disconnect between the traveling national press and local voters in the days leading up to his state's primary in January. The national reporters, Cline says, "had heard the same speeches over and over, so there was nothing new for them to report after a while. So, naturally, they end up focusing on what's different day to day — the jockeying and the positioning, the polls, the horse race. It becomes insiders talking to insiders. [But] for the voters, what the candidate says in his backyard is news to them, because they haven't heard it all before. They want to hear what the candidate says about fixing Social Security or Medicare or tax cuts."

Cline says groupthink is "unavoidable" when "reporters all ride the same plane, go to the same events and are socializing with each other... If you know the angle you're taking is the same as the one everyone else is taking, you've got your butt covered. It certainly minimizes your risk. But what you really want is a reporter who digs a little deeper."

Wilner and Halperin suggest that the political media's worst tendencies are reinforced by cable news coverage of the campaign. In part, they say, this reflects both the influence of cable on beat reporters (many of whom monitor the TV coverage) and the sheer amount of time cable devotes to the campaign each day.

During the week leading up to Super Tuesday in February, for example, political coverage on CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC accounted for 70 percent of the networks' airtime, a far higher percentage than in any other news medium, and literally 10 times more time than was devoted to the next biggest story, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The PEJ's Mark Jurkowitz says the presidential campaign is a "made-for-cable-TV" event because it offers predictable coverage elements (debates, speeches, polls, etc.), occasional drama and predictable ratings even when the news is slow.

The more insidious thing, critics say, is how cable covers the campaign. As Halperin puts it, cable leans heavily on "polling, personalities and punditry," with a bias for the kind of handicapping, snappy commentary and heavy guesswork that has proven so wrong so far.

"The problem with cable is that you always have to have something to say," says Wilner. "You're just constantly looking for content." Which means that cable can't shut up even when it should: "During a campaign that goes on for months and months, any rational person would say there are going to be periods when there's nothing happening. That's anathema to cable. It needs to get its money's worth. It needs people to analyze and speculate constantly."

But it's unfair to lay all of the bad calls on cable, says Bill Wolff, vice president of primetime programming at MSNBC. In New Hampshire, he says, everyone read the same flawed, ephemeral or misleading polling data — and came to the same incorrect conclusion. "I think everyone got it wrong — radio, print, network, the Internet, cable," Wolff says. "It's just part of this unpredictable and unprecedented year." In any event, he says, New Hampshire taught everyone in the media a lesson: "Read the whole poll, including the number of undecideds and the margin of error."

The Washington Post's David Broder, dean of American political journalists, points out that the 2008 race has some unusual features that have increased the level of uncertainty. One is its wide-open nature; for the first time since 1952, neither party had an incumbent president or vice president seeking the nomination. "If you go back four years, [John] Kerry won Iowa in a bit of an upset, but then everything fell into his lap." In other words, with both parties' nominees all but settled by early February, the media didn't have quite as many opportunities to wildly speculate on what might happen.

But Broder also says both the political cycle and the news cycle are moving faster than ever. The "insane schedule" of primaries — several states moved up the dates of their primaries to increase their influence — has offered no rest for the candidates or the news media, no chance for reflection or reassessment. At the same time, "24-hour news means we have all this time and space to fill up. The latest thing takes on an exaggerated resonance," Broder says.

Broder's prescription? "I suppose the most useful thing is to remind ourselves that we're reporters, not forecasters. But I know that's much easier said than done. We're not going to slow down the news cycle; 24-hour news is with us."

That sounds like a good starting point for a campaign to reform campaign reporting.

For starters, says Jurkowitz, cable could do a service to its viewers by more clearly delineating fact from opinion, and analysis from partisan spin. "If you're looking at this from a news consumer's point of view, what goes on cable can be cacophonous and confusing," he says. "You're not going to eliminate speculation or opinion from these shows, nor would I advocate they try, but it would be helpful to know who's on whose side. Who's a partisan? Who's shilling for a candidate? Who does or doesn't have a dog in the fight? A little truth in labeling would be nice."

John Harris, the Politico's editor, says serious journalists should ignore speculative "parlor games" and get back to "the most basic David Broder rule": Analyzing how voters voted, what it says about them and what it might portend for the country. "That's serious journalism worth doing," Harris says.

To do that, reporters might want to consider spending more time hanging around voters, not candidates, says Thomas Edsall, Harris' former colleague at the Washington Post and now a professor at Columbia University and the political editor of the Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com).

Reporters, says Edsall, are perpetually surprised by the issues that catch fire among the electorate. In 1988, for example, voters were much more receptive to George H.W. Bush's effort to define Michael Dukakis as soft on crime via the Willie Horton ad than the media realized, Edsall says. In the midyear Republican sweep of 1994, a desire for welfare reform helped animate conservatives; in 2004, it was opposition to gay marriage; and in 2006, it was opposition to illegal immigration.

"Reporters tend to live fairly rarefied lives, and those issues may not touch them personally," says Edsall. "I found that by going to state [capitols], school boards, city council meetings, you find out what's bothering people. This year, everyone says the economy is going to benefit the Democrats, but that's not always the case. There are a lot of basic unknowns out there."

Edsall also thinks the traditional method of portraying issues — equal time on both sides — is an anachronism, mere "reporting by equivocation" and an artifact of a dying medium, the daily newspaper. He thinks candidates' proposals and ideas can be held up to much tougher, or even favorable, scrutiny without a journalist being partisan or unfair. "This is more an editor problem than a reporter problem," he says. "Editors tend to become increasingly anxious in their oversight of coverage. They're scared of taking a position, when they could be doing a legitimate takeout [about a candidate's proposal] that is challenging and aggressive. That doesn't have to mean one-sided."

Halperin thinks news organizations could create better campaign coverage by throwing more money at it. "Maybe the owners..still have enough public-service responsibility left to want to put two people on the [campaign] plane" instead of one, he says. But he knows that's not likely to happen until the embattled news media's revenue models start to change in unexpected ways. "If companies aren't willing to shift revenue from other parts of their organization, it can only become worse," he says.

At bottom, says Andrew Cline, political reporters need to remind themselves about the fundamental value of their calling, something becoming increasingly lost in the blizzard of opinion-happy bloggers and shoot-from-the-hip cable pundits: Reporters can still hold candidates to account.

"If you're a reporter covering a presidential campaign, you're in a privileged position," Cline says. "You get to ask questions that the average voter can't ask the candidates. You're the eyes and ears of the citizenry. You ought to be that curious citizen. Take a step back, and ask yourself this: What does a voter want to know about, not a political insider."

Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com), a Washington Post reporter, writes frequently about the news media for the Post and AJR. He wrote about newspapers' online advertising in AJR's December/ January issue.

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