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You ever notice that in any election the biggest winners are not politicians, but the news media ? Always the media. Invariably, they turn their post-election coverage into a horse race in which they show themselves to be infallible.

Is it not thrilling to hear television news readers do their usual election night thing, excitedly 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 candidates were racing around the track at Churchill Downs, as if the order in which their votes happened to be counted made for a contest.

You know, dramatic stuff like, "John Jones is surging ahead in his race against Mary Smith for Congress -- but it's not over, by any means! Smith's forces insist that their candidate will make a late surge. Stay tuned!"

Stay tuned, that is, for the next commercial message. Getting viewers to do that is of course the primary purpose of election coverage as of any other TV programming.

Newspapers can't have as much fun in this regard. But they do try.

"After early returns favored passage of the controversial proposition, the tide turned against approval," one paper typically said of a ballot measure in a recent election.

Another reported a "thrilling, nail-biting finish ... a stunning come-from-behind victory." And there was a story about several candidates who "trailed all night."

Most of the election winners, you may have noticed, win "as expected" -- meaning as expected by the all-knowing media. And the results that do not turn out as the media "expected" are reported, of course, as "upsets" or at least "surprises" caused by peculiar voter actions that could not possibly have been foreseen.

It's the same with margins of victory or defeat that exceed media predictions. They also are "surprising."

It's very much like sports reporting. Sportswriters invariably are certain who will win the games they cover. If their pick doesn't win, it has to be an "upset" or at least a "surprising victory" for the winner.

For sportswriters and political reporters, who take the same approach, it's a perfect setup. They can't lose, no matter how badly they may perform.

People of a particularly suspicious bent just might think, however, that poor advance reporting might have at least a little bit to do with those upsets and surprises. They might even think there could be a little less media reliance on conventional wisdom, a little less pontificating, speculating and self-promotion and a lot more old-fashioned hard-nosed reporting.

Voters, after all, rarely change their minds at the last minute. They almost invariably know well in advance how -- and if -- they're going to vote. Occasionally, last-minute developments do change voters' minds, and sometimes people lie to pollsters about how they plan to vote. But it's the self-proclaimed job of the media to discover those matters in pre-election coverage.

The media's treatment of electoral politics as sport and entertainment does even more than insult our intelligence. It warps our perception of the democratic process itself by assuming 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 Dick Meister