Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

That Fragrant Horse Race Coverage

Horse Shit Cigarettes are made from the finest grade of domestic and imported horse shit obtainable. Only fresh midd horse shit is used. NOT MULE SHIT. And they are roasted to keep that mild, sweet taste.

If you like the taste of Horse Shit Cigarettes, you might want to try a genuine Horse Shit Cigar. Each one lasts an hour, perfect for watching an episode of Hardball, especially since each one smells like a mix of Aqua Velva and Chris Matthews. Mmm-mmm! That's some mighty fine Horse Shit!

(Okay, the second paragraph doesn't appear on the package. But it should.)

The problem with a horse race is that it produces a lot of horse shit. Sure, it's fun to mock the boastful swells in the press box for losing all their bets on New Hampshire, but they've been wrong plenty of times before in this election season alone, and it's not as if they all learn their lesson. A day after Chris Matthews said he'd "never underestimate Hillary Clinton again," he said that the reason she was elected senator was because "her husband messed around." Of course, in addition to peddling his own special brand of horse shit, Matthews is virulently anti-Clinton, a sexist who often seems delusional. But he's far from the only prominent pundit with a short memory or no shame. As one of Matthews' colleagues observed:

"The pirouettes are amazing," says Brokaw, who was analyzing the campaign on MSNBC. "The utter confidence with which everyone had been wrong 20 minutes earlier, they have the same utter confidence about what produced this surprise. It's intellectually dishonest."

On a similar note:

Mark Feldstein, a George Washington University journalism professor, describes political reporters as "superficial sportswriters. Covering the campaign is almost like joining a cult, with a cocoonlike bubble as you travel from event to event. There's a lemminglike quality."

Of course, sportswriters have their share of fawners, but most are much more honest and accurate than the majority of our political chattering class. The herd mentality of our talking heads leads to poor, shallow coverage, which is incredibly annoying. Even a blogger whose work I've enjoyed in the past, boldly predicted the whole thing, the whole election, for Obama after Iowa — and it was written in an authoritative tone. Good lord. Needless to say, we bloggers shouldn't repeat the worst faults of the mainstream, corporate, vapid media. There can be great value in noting political realities of the race, but I must confess irritation when anyone seems to celebrate a badly flawed system.

Some of the dissection of the New Hampshire primary was good, at least. Speaking of fawners, Howard Kurtz often pens flattering tributes to television reporters and has a demonstrated conservative bias in his coverage and outlook, but occasionally, he does a pretty good job, as he did last week in three columns detailing the breakdown: "Media Blow It Again, " "The Media's Katrina?" and "Running Against the Media." Jeff Greenfield, political analyst for Slate, offered an admirable mea culpa, as did The Politico and some other outlets and pundits. NPR and PBS have had pretty good election coverage overall. The Washington Post had a decent breakdown, and Countdown examined whether it was the polling or the reporting that broke down. Steve Benen wrote a short piece "In Defense of Pollsters" and has provided good analysis on the results of each contest. Of course, it helps that he's waited until the voters actually, y'know, voted.

Here's my favorite line of the lot (courtesy of the second Kurtz piece), about the shift in New Hampshire coverage:

And then, at 10:31, MSNBC projected Hillary as the winner. CNN and Fox followed suit 15 minutes later, and the scrambling began. Spin was modified, explanations revised.

"One of the greatest political upsets in American political history," Russert said.

Umm, no. Not at all. It was the goddam New Hampshire primary, not "Dewey Defeats Truman" or even Jim Webb defeating George Allen. And New Hampshire often picks someone other than the eventual winner (Bill Clinton came in second in 1992, as did George W. Bush in 2000). It's a tiny contest of outrageously inflated consequence. This is just Russert's mammoth, oversized ego blathering here. It appears that in his mind, the only way he could have possibly made such an error in judgment is due to an upset of 'historic' proportions.

In fact, although Russert had plenty of company, he could have avoided being so wrong quite easily by merely noting the actual poll information. In its series of New Hampshire stories the day after, NPR reported that as many as 20% of voters were undecided on the day of the election. The aforementioned Countdown program did a more detailed breakdown along the same lines. With that large a number of undecided and uncommitted voters, nothing was guaranteed. It was fair to be a bit surprised by Clinton's victory in New Hampshire, that such a large proportion of undecided voters would break for her, but all of the pundits (and even most if not all of the campaigns) ignored how many undecided voters there actually were. They could have easily checked their egos and hedged their bets by citing the actual polls they so belove. They could have abstained from sweeping prognostications to demonstrate how very clever they are. But that is not their nature. "Nobody knows anything," as William Goldman sagely observed — but even people who quote Goldman often pretend they know it all anyway.

The truth is, Iowa and New Hampshire only matter so much for two reasons: one, the press' obsession with them, and two, money, specifically fund-raising. Neither of these have to be the way they are currently, and I'd argue neither should be celebrated. Both states are tiny and unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. Yet every goddam election cycle, pundits work themselves into a frenzy that these two early contests actually mean something more than they do (or at the very least, mean more than they should).

It's wise to keep it all in perspective. Iowa and New Hampshire do play a legitimate role in trimming the herd, as they have this year, with some candidates earning one to three percent dropping out. Others persevere, despite a paucity of funds compounded by the drop in coverage. The current system abounds with self-fulfilling prophecies. But there simply isn't a good reason for strong candidates who aren't leading to drop out so early. Even if the press wants them to, they have no obligation to comply. Mitt Romney's fund-raising may be hurt if he doesn't come in first in one of the upcoming primaries, and many pundits are opining that he needs to win Michigan. However, even if he doesn't, Romney has the money, ambition and ego to continue to Super Tuesday and beyond if he wants to. Besides, as of this morning, Romney has 19 delegates to Huckabee's 31 and McCain's 7.

Similarly, John Edwards isn't in the ideal position to win the Democratic nomination, but still has an outside chance, and his national numbers have steadily grown the more people have heard him. As of this morning, he has 50 delegates to Obama's 89 and Clinton's 197. Edwards has said he's in until at least Super Tuesday, 2/5/08. (It's telling that the press, Hillary Clinton and to a lesser degree Obama, are ignoring Edwards, despite polling showing he's the strongest general election candidate. Edwards has easily gotten the least coverage, and least favorable coverage, of all major candidates in both parties. Or call it the most undeserved negative coverage, if you prefer.) Kucinich, Paul and others will likely continue regardless of their prospects. The nomination for both parties may not be set until after Super Tuesday, which is less than a month away. Surely that's not too long to wait. One would think pundits obsessed with horse race coverage wouldn't want their party to end. Personally, I find the undecided nature of the race quite exciting, most of all that my primary vote and the primary votes of many Americans might actually be allowed to make a difference for a change. Democracy. Ain't it grand?

Let's take a look at what Iowa and New Hampshire actually mean in terms of the nation as a whole — or what they should mean, if ours were a sane, fair system. According to the U.S. Government, Iowa has a population of just under 3 million, or approximately 1% of our national population of roughly 301 million. Annoyingly, the Iowa Democratic Party does not release the actual number of voters who participate in the caucus, but they report that "statewide, more than 236,000 Democrats caucused," while 118,691 Republicans voted in the GOP's Iowa caucus. The turnout for both parties absolutely shattered previous records (participation was "fewer than 6 percent of eligible voters in 2004"), but for all that, those approximately 356,000 Iowans still amount to a mere 16% of eligible voters (download or open the CIRCLE release on the linked page for the breakdown; the large increase in youth turnout is good news, though). Iowa's convoluted caucus system has many problems, and "just as nonrepresentative as Iowa is of the country, Iowa caucusgoers are nonrepresentative of Iowa as a whole.” Regardless, Obama won 38% of Iowa's Democratic delegates, so without getting into all of the arcane rules of the caucus, that effectively amounts to close to 90,000 Iowans voting for Obama, or 3% of all Iowans statewide. That in turn is a miniscule 0.03% of all Americans. (Please pass on any more accurate stats if you have them, or any illuminating perspectives.)

Granted, polls can be very predictive, and not everyone in America votes in presidential elections. Obama's tally in Iowa did exceed expectations. Still, calling the Democratic nominee (let alone the presidency, as some folks did) when 99% of the country hasn't even had the chance to weigh in is just ridiculous and insulting.

That's not to mention that Iowa hardly has a record of being an accurate predictor of the eventual nominee, at least for Democrats. As Jon Swift satirically noted in "Iowa Caucus Results Explained," before the New Hampshire vote was in (emphasis mine):

The biggest loser of all was Hillary Clinton. If she can't win in Iowa, where can she win? In every contested race since 1972 (Bill Clinton ran unopposed in 1996), the winner of the Iowa caucuses for the Democrats has gone on to be elected President, except for 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004 when the winner did not go on to be elected President. Iowans have an uncanny ability to predict which Democrat can win in the general election, which means Hillary's campaign may be doomed. Look for members of the party establishment to start looking for another candidate, maybe even going outside the party to someone like McCain who could win both the Republican and Democrat nominations and run on a unity ticket with Mike Bloomberg or Joe Lieberman as his vice president, sparing voters the burden of having to make a hard choice in November. David Broder and his friends are already ecstatic at the prospect.

In other words, the pundits on TV know that Iowa results are not necessarily predictive, or should know. Yet every election cycle, they whip themselves into a frenzy pretending otherwise.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, a pretty impressive 517,226 out of roughly 1.3 million residents voted in the Democratic and Republican primaries. Apparently, that's an overall turnout rate of 53% of eligible voters (with a 43% participation rate among voters under 30, up from 18% in 2004, cause to celebrate). Regardless, combine the New Hampshire turnout with Iowa's (throw in some estimate of the Wyoming Republican primary as well, if you like, although annoyingly, The Wyoming Republican Party did not release the vote totals, not that it's a populous state). Not many Americans have actually voted, in the ballpark of one million, probably a bit less. Looking at those states' populations, less than 2% of Americans have even had the opportunity to vote in a primary or caucus so far. (Again, please feel free to pass on any more accurate statistics if you have them.)

Horse race coverage can be done, and done well, but must be keep in proportion and constrained by common sense. It's not news that such rationality rarely prevails. As a Project for Excellence in Journalism study on political coverage, covering a five month period near the start of 2007, reported in late October:

63 percent of the stories focused on political strategy and 17 percent on the candidates' backgrounds, compared with 15 percent on their proposals and 1 percent on their records. The remaining 4 percent dealt with miscellaneous topics.

Meanwhile, Harvard's Center for Public Leadership National Leadership Index has an ongoing survey on public attitudes toward the press. As of December 2007, as Eric Boehlert observed that, among the public:

* 88 percent agree that the news media focuses too much on trivial rather than important issues.

* 92 percent say that it is important that the news media provide information on candidates' specific policy plans, but 61 percent believe that the news media is not providing enough coverage of policy plans

* 67 percent say that coverage of embarrassing incidents or mistakes that make a candidate look bad is not important, but 68 percent say the news media is providing too much coverage of embarrassing incidents and mistakes

The conclusion was painfully obvious: Citizens claimed they were getting "exactly the type of campaign coverage that they want the least," according to the report. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, news consumers want issues, issues, issues, while the press obsesses over tactics, tactics, tactics.

Even if the numbers aren't exact, the conclusions are consistent with many other studies. Even a recent online poll for CNN had 94% of viewers complaining about shallow coverage.

Even respected outlets such as The Washington Post, which typically features some great reporting along with the dross, delivers this sort of empty product far too often. Their series "The Front-Runners," was embarrassingly shallow. As Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler wrote back in December about one installment:

Today, the victim is Candidate Edwards. As with Clinton, as with Romney, the Post’s profile contains four parts:

1. An insipid attempt at psycho-biography, written by one of the world’s dumbest people.

2. A piece called “How He’s Running.” (According to Kornblut, who writes today’s piece, “Edwards is running as ‘the son of a millworker.’”)

3. A piece called “How He Looks” (Robin Givhan).

4. A piece called “How He Talks” (Dana Milbank).

That’s right! In this morning’s Post, there's a full report about John Edwards’ clothes—but no report about his proposals! Nowhere in these “front-runner” profiles does the Post explain what the candidates have proposed in the course of their White House campaigns.

It's not really a secret why horse race coverage persists, either. As long as we're doing lists, I see three reasons:

1) It's easy. It's much, much easier than policy analysis or fact-checking. It's pundit laziness.

2) It can be presented as neutral. Horse race coverage can play off new polls, but is solely descriptive, a quantitative versus qualatitative approach. Reporters can more easily avoid charges of bias.

3) They enjoy it. While some political reporters are fantastic, far too many are shallow, vapid people, bored by policy, self-absorbed, and persistently unwilling to acknowledge that time and time again, the average citizen wants far more substance from politicians than they as reporters apparently do.

Much of the liberal blogosphere has delved into these dynamics for some time, but if you think I'm being unfair, I suggest you read through the Daily Howler archives. At least read through this recent Daily Howler entry for a characteristic glimpse of how reporters repeatedly show contempt for politicians who have the gall to answer questions posed to them by citizens.

As Jeff Greenfield notes, "bad conversation tends to drive out good conversation." There's far too much hogwash and bullshit in our national discourse, but for one more glimpse of horse race horse shit, check out this excerpt from "Merchants of Trivia" by Matt Taibbi (via MBR):

Every reporter who spends any real time on the campaign trail gets wrapped up in the horse race. It's inevitable. You tell me how you can spend nearly two years watching the dullest speeches known to man and not spend most of your time wondering about the one surefire interesting moment the whole thing has to offer: the ending.

Stripped of its prognosticating element, most campaign journalism is essentially a clerical job, and not a particularly noble one at that. On the trail, we reporters aren't watching politics in action: The real stuff happens behind closed doors, where armies of faceless fund-raising pros are glad-handing equally faceless members of the political donor class, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars that will be paid off in very specific favors over the course of the next four years. That's the real high-stakes poker game in this business, and we don't get to sit at that table.

Instead, we get to be herded day after day into one completely controlled environment after another, where we listen to an array of ideologically similar politicians deliver professionally crafted advertising messages that we, in turn, have the privilege of delivering to the public free of charge. We rarely get to ask the candidates real questions, and even when we do, they almost never answer.

If you could train a chimpanzee to sit still through a Joe Biden speech, it could probably do the job. The only thing that elevates this work above monkey level is that we get to guess who wins.

For most of us, this is a guilty pleasure. But some of us get so used to being asked who should be running the world that our brains start to ferment. I've seen it happen. The first few times a newbie comes on the campaign trail, he's watching all the flag-waving and the soldier-humping and he's writing it all down with this stunned expression, as if to say, "Jesus, I went to college for this?" Two months later, he's doing six hits a day on MSNBC as a Senior Political Analyst and he's got this weirdly pissed-off look on his face, like he's mad that the world woke up and forgot to kiss his ass that morning. This same meek rookie you saw bent over a steno book just months ago is suddenly talking about how Hillary Clinton needs to do this, Barack Obama needs to do that — and he's serious! He's not kidding! Next thing you know, he's got an eight-figure book deal and a ten-foot pole up his crack, and he's wearing a tie and loafers to bed. In other words, he's Jonathan Alter.

I call it the Revenge of the Nerds effect. Give an army of proud professionals nothing but a silly horse race to cover, and inevitably they'll elevate even the most meaningless details of that horse race to cosmic importance.

This is how you end up getting candidates bludgeoned to death on the altar of such trivialities as "rookie mistakes" and "lack of warmth"; it's how you end up getting elections decided because candidates like John Kerry are unable to overcome adjectives like "looks French" and "long-faced Easter Island statue."

That's what happened in Iowa. For once, voters tried to say that they were perfectly capable of choosing a president without us, that they could do without any of this nonsense. But they were wrong. Nonsense would have its day!

Indeed it will. And after a long day of spouting nonsense in print and on air, there's nothing that hits the spot quite like a fine Horse Shit Cigarette.

(Remember, corporations say it's good for you.)

Update: I was able to find more definitive numbers that eluded me late last night, and have revised two paragraphs accordingly, including some new links. I've also added one quotation and edited for clarity.

Update 1/30/08: CIRCLE has updated its information, so I've updated that statistic and the link accordingly.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


Jay Allbritton said...

Epic post. I was cheering along the whole time!

Fran said...

That post blew me away. Really brilliant in its scope and analysis.

Plus- who doesn't love a good Horse Shit smoke?

Thank you Batocchio. That was some work on your part and I thank you!

Dr. Zaius said...

I would agree that Tim Russert smells awful, but I don't think it is only the Horse Shit Cigarettes that make him smell that way. I think it's that natural fawning, servile brown nosing for his corporate masters that gives him that special aroma that we have come to know him by.