The mainstream media have been their usual infallible
selves in covering the presidential primaries. Their failure to successfully
predict the outcomes of particular contests is not the result of poor advance
reporting, of course. It stems, rather, from "upsets" that no human
could possibly have anticipated -- sometimes "surprising" or even
Consider Hilary Clinton's victory in the Democrats' New
Hampshire primary, for example. Like virtually every other media outlet, the
Washington Post had declared she couldn't win, and when she did, said the
Post's Chris Cillizza, it marked "one of the most stunning comeback
victories in modern American politics."
Cillizza's cop-out also marked one of the more extreme
examples of the media attempting to cover its ... well, you know what. But
though extreme, it was not unusual. Happens all the time, as I certainly know
after a half-century of covering politics for a wide variety of print,
broadcast and online outlets.
Voters who caused those journalistically inexplicable
"upsets" by failing to vote as the media told them they would vote
weren't the media's only targets of blame. They blamed their errors on
pollsters and pundits as well -- interestingly including some who work directly
As PBS' Judy Woodruff noted, "Polling shaped most of
the news coverage" of the New Hampshire primaries. Post writer Joel
Achenbach described those who did the polling as "idiots," and the
pundits who also predicted a Clinton defeat as "complete freakin'
Generally ignored, however, are the thousands of
political reporters who also have had much to do with the media failures.
They've been paying way too much attention to the know-it-all pollsters and
pundits. It's obvious, too, that they've actually been taking seriously the
candidates' spin masters, their own speculations and the ever-present
conventional wisdom that points to for-sure winners and losers who often fail
to win or lose as predicted.
Most important, political reporters are spending far too
little pre-election time finding out for themselves how people are likely to
vote - and, most especially, why.
You'd think they were sports reporters, who almost
invariably are certain who's going to win particular contests, and if they
don't win, damnit, it has to be an "upset."
Although the media's principal claim to political
importance -- a reputation for accuracy --- has suffered mightily, it hasn't
been all bad for them. The media, particularly the television variety, have
been shoveling in their usual tons of money from those campaign ads that so
muddy the political waters, possibly even more so than the reports about
"upsets" and other figments of media imagination.
There's also big money to be made after the campaigns are
over and the votes are in. Broadcasters try to draw the maximum,
advertiser-loving audiences by treating the dreary counting of votes already
cast as if they were being cast minute-by-minute in dramatic night-long
encounters. It's as if the order in which the votes were counted made for a
contest, as if they were runs being scored in a baseball game.
But even more than insulting our intelligence, the
post-election reporting -- and especially the pollster and pundit-heavy
pre-election campaign reporting - warps our perception of the democratic
process itself . It assumes that the media know precisely how we will vote and
that, if we don't vote that way, we're "upsetting" something other
than poorly prepared journalists.
Copyright 2008 Dick Meister