The role of political reporters

Why should reporters assigned to cover campaigns engage in predictive analysis at all?

Published January 7, 2008 2:58PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

At The New Republic's blog, Jason Zengerle confesses what is and has long been too obvious to require much proof -- the media is uncontrollably in love with John McCain. And Zengerle's reason why this is so is equally unsurprising: McCain gives them unfettered access, so they love him. Everything is about them, and whichever politician flatters and charms these adolescent, coddled narcissists is the recipient of their uncritical love (that explains much, though not all, of their profound failure in covering the Bush campaigns and administration). Zengerle also says:

Speaking of McCain and the media, I was at a dinner tonight with various political reporters who are up here to cover the happenings, and it was pretty funny how giddy/relieved they were at the prospect of a McCain-Obama general election campaign, as opposed to, say, a Romney-Clinton one. Suddenly, the next 11 months of their lives look a whole lot more enjoyable.

Those preferences -- all based in their own petty personal desires -- couldn't be more obvious in the media narrative spewing forth. Dancing around like munchkins in Oz, they proclaim that the wicked Clinton witch is dead and McCain is surging with a miraculous, glorious comeback.

Leave aside whether any of that is true. Why are predictions and speculation even part of the job of a political reporter at all? One can see why opinionists and pundits might dabble in that sort of predictive analysis, but why do "reporters" covering these campaigns consider it their province to guess about which candidates are going to win and lose, as opposed to, say, reporting on what they argue, what their claims are, the truth of their positions, etc. etc.?

Aside from the fact that these endless prediction games completely overwhelm any substantive discussions, their guesses -- which are really wishes -- are almost always dreadfully wrong and plainly designed to advance their concealed agenda for which candidates they like and dislike. Why is any of that something that reporters ought to be doing at all? Is there any distinction between what a "reporter" does and what a "pundit" does covering this campaign? There doesn't seem to be any.

As but one example, consider this new daily tracking poll today from Rasumussen Reports. At least according to this poll, it is true that there has been one candidate who has been genuinely surging in the last week or two among Democratic voters nationally -- John Edwards:

Edwards -- who, just one week ago, was 10 points behind Obama nationally among Democrats -- is now only two points behind him. Less than a month ago, he trailed Clinton by 29 points. Now it's 13 points. He is, by far, at his high point of support nationwide. Apparently, the more exposure Democratic voters get to Edwards and his campaign positions -- and that exposure has been at its high point during his surge -- the more they like him. By contrast, Obama is more or less at the same level of support nationally, even having decreased some since his Iowa win (for most of mid-Decemeber, he was at 27-28 points).

Yet to listen to media reports, Edwards doesn't even exist. His campaign is dead. He has no chance. They hate Edwards, hate his message, and thus rendered him invisible long ago, only now to declare him dead -- after he came in second place in the first caucus of the campaign.

There are certainly horse-race counterarguments to all of this. This is only one poll. Obama is ahead in New Hampshire, where his support has increased, etc. etc.

But I'm not focusing on the accuracy of horse-race predictions here, but instead, on the fact that the traveling press corps endlessly imposes its own narrative on the election, thereby completely excluding from all coverage plainly credible candidates they dislike (such as Edwards) while breathlessly touting the prospects of the candidates of whom they are enamored. Their predictions (i.e., preferences and love affairs) so plainly drive their press coverage -- the candidates they love are lauded as likely winners while the ones they hate are ignored or depicted as collapsing -- which in turn influences the election in the direction they want, making their predictions become self-fulfilling prophecies.

It's just all a completely inappropriate role for political reporters to play, yet it composes virtually the entirety of their election coverage. Go read Time or The New Republic or The Politico or The Washington Post and see if you can find any examples of straight factual reporting about the remaining candidates, their positions, anything substantive -- rather than endless, group-think gossip about tactics and winning/losing predictions. It basically doesn't exist (here's an interview Ana Marie Cox conducted with John McCain yesterday where she tried to press him on his comment that we should remain in Iraq for 100 years -- notable because it's so rare to find any questions of this type).

I realize none of this is a revelation. But it's still astonishing how extreme it is. The point isn't just that this empty chatter squeezes out anything more meaningful -- it does -- but that it completely drives voter perceptions and controls the ability of candidates to be heard.

Here is an interview with Fred Thompson on the Today Show where he makes this point quite well, chiding the interviewer for asking him about nothing other than the sorts of speculative, irrelevant predictive matters that dominate press coverage, to the complete exclusion of anything he is trying to argue as part of his campaign. Inventing exciting dramatic narratives and predicting outcomes just isn't the role of a political reporter, even thought it's what most of them to do to the exclusion of all else.

UPDATE: Speaking of petty, vacuous journalists acting like giddy munchkins, here's Mickey Kaus (emphasis in original):

Monday's Must-See Event--The Train Wreck Tour: The reporters I talk to are looking forward to the final pre-election joint Bill and Hillary Clinton rally Monday evening with the same lascivious delight you might encounter before a Britney Spears/Amy Winehouse double bill. Everyone expects it to be a gruesome night for the Clintons; their aides have been lashing out at the press uncharmingly. Anything could happen! ...

As Kevin Drum says, there are all kinds of reasons why a rational person might consider the defeat of Hillary Clinton to be a good thing. The fact that it's being caused, in part, by snide, catty sniping over petty matters from reporters who hate the Clintons isn't one of them. Just compare the anti-Clinton media histrionics over the fact that she "raised her voice" (very mildly) during the debate with their endless love for McCain, one of the most tempermental and uncontrollably angry political figures in the country.

UPDATE II: The other day, when writing about the cold shoulder reporters gave to Clinton when she entered their bus with coffee and bagels, and Ben Smith's "reporting" that "it was like the awkwardness to running unexpectedly into an ex-girlfriend," I asked: "Do they ever think about anything without reference to some high school cliche?"

Time's Michael Scherer, in explaining the media's love of John McCain, provided the best possible answer to that question. Scherer's post was discussed elsewhere -- including here, where Digby added an equally revealing example -- but nobody who is interested in understanding how our press corps "functions" should miss Scherer's explanation.

UPDATE III: From "media critic" Howard Kurtz's online chat today:

Prescott, Ariz.: John Edwards has been on a tear lately about how corporations have been dictating the path of America and the need for average people to demand their country back. Now, you and 90 percent of the media work for corporations. Does this bring up a conflict of interest in trying to be fair and objective towards the guy? Is this why the media is trying to pretend he doesn't exist? I mean the No. 4 guy on the Republican side, McThompson or whatever his name is, gets more press than Edwards. What would have happened if Edwards had won Iowa?

Howard Kurtz: I agree that Edwards has been largely overshadowed by Hillary and Obama, but it has nothing to do with corporations owning the big news organizations. (By the way, Newsweek, owned by the very corporation for which I work, put him on the cover a few weeks ago.) If Edwards had won Iowa, which most reporters thought was at least a possibility, he'd be getting the kind of saturation coverage that Obama is drawing now. But the media have decided, fairly or unfairly, that Iowa was Edwards's best shot at winning the nomination. He's running third in the New Hampshire polls at the moment.

Actually, Edwards was invisible from the media narrative for almost the entire year, well before Iowa, but nonetheless, he came in second place, is a legitimate candidate by every metric, and it isn't the media's place to "decide" -- after one state -- that he's no longer worth mentioning because he won't win. Obviously, by freezing him out of coverage, the media dictates the outcome rather than reports on it.

Kurtz was also asked about Ben Smith's comment that reporters gave Hillary the cold shoulder when she entered the bus because "it was like the awkwardness to running unexpectedly into an ex-girlfriend." Kurtz, needless to say, defended Smith (dishonestly, needless to say), claiming that "the point was that it was so unusual for Hillary to engage the press that way."

No, that manifestly was not the point. Smith's point was that Hillary is a cold witch who reminds the press corps of some dreary ex-girlfriend they want to avoid. Kurtz will virtually never criticize any establishment media figures -- a rather odd attribute for the "media critic" of CNN and The Washington Post.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------