Feb 1 2008

Humbled in New Hampshire?

Press needs to quit guessing and start reporting

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Madison Guy

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Madison Guy

Leading up to the New Hampshire primary, the storyline on the Democratic side was the disastrous state of the Clinton campaign. Her loss was a given; it seemed the only considerations were the margin of defeat and whether or not she would even continue running at all. The day of the primary, the Washington Post reported (1/8/08) that a second loss to Obama “would leave the New York senator’s candidacy gasping for breath,” and declared that Clinton’s vow to stay in the race

may be more wish than reality. By Wednesday, it may be too late. By then, Obama’s campaign may have inflicted enough damage on the woman-who-was-once-inevitable that no amount of readjusting, recalibrating and rearranging will give her the wherewithal to overcome two big losses in the first contests of the 2008 nomination battle.

Clinton, of course, won the primary–surprising the pundits and contradicting the polls that journalists unwisely use to set the tone of so much of their coverage. In the aftermath, the media were left asking what went “wrong” with the numbers. As the front page of USA Today declared (1/10/08), “For Pollsters, N.H. ‘Unprecedented.'” (This isn’t so, actually; the USA Today story included a state pollster who noted that pre-election polls in 2000 vastly underestimated John McCain’s victory over George W. Bush–e.g., New York Times, 1/30/00.)

In the wake of the media mea culpas, it’s worth considering the unspoken implication–that if the vote had gone the way the polls were predicting, then the press would have been doing a fine job of covering an election. But journalists should not be gamblers, betting that they will be vindicated by voters’ choices that are inherently unpredictable. Reporters ought to strive for coverage that holds up no matter what the results are.

Instead, pundits throw out bizarrely confident guesses like they’re touting horses, with about the same degree of accuracy. NBC‘s Tim Russert (1/4/08) declared that “only McCain or Romney can come out of New Hampshire to fight for another day in South Carolina, only one. One stays behind. It is make or break for McCain or Romney in New Hampshire.” (Actually, after New Hampshire, both candidates continued to campaign, but Russert didn’t have to explain where his prediction came from.) Or as the Washington Post‘s David Broder wrote before the New Hampshire vote (1/4/08), “A second Romney loss would effectively end the former Massachusetts governor’s candidacy.”

While Extra! has written before (7=8/07) about media hostility towards so-called “second-tier” candidates (“In both parties, second-tier candidates continue to press on and siphon off votes,” the Wall Street Journal reported–1/10/08), Broder and Russert were predicting the eminent demise of the candidate who could credibly claim to be the front-runner. This illustrates an important point about mainstream election coverage: Not only do journalists and pundits devote far too much attention to covering the horse race aspect of campaigns, but when they cover the horse race, they generally do a poor job of it.

Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw offered some helpful commentary during the coverage of the New Hampshire primaries, suggesting to MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews that reporters put less emphasis on trying to predict outcomes and spend more time covering actual policy:

BROKAW: You know what I think we’re going to have to do?MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

MATTHEWS: Well, what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.

BROKAW: No, no, we don’t stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they’re saying. We know from how the people voted today what moved them to vote. You can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that have not been fully explored during all this.

Matthews’ response is illuminating. Does a political junkie who hosts two national television programs really not have any idea about how to cover politics other than talking about strategy, fundraising and polls? Do campaign journalists really have so little interest in the actual policy positions of the candidates?

As it stands now, the races for the major party nominations are remarkably close. The most valuable service journalists could provide now would be to illustrate the differences between the candidates on the major issues of importance to voters. The press corps seems chastened by their misreading of the New Hampshire electorate, and many are vowing to be more cautious in their assumptions. Will they follow through on their own advice? And will voters ever get campaign reporting that helps them make informed choices about the direction of their democracy?