Howard Dean’s collapse in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination showed that traditional “horserace” reporting of political campaigns has some serious shortcomings.
Dean seemed to have everything going for him. The former Vermont governor had raised the most money. He had a novel and successful new way of organizing, using the Internet. The polls showed him leading.
All of those are key tests in the horse race approach to reporting a candidate’s strength. But maybe reporters shouldn’t be trying so hard to determine who’s the strongest candidate. Maybe they should just be reporting what the candidates are saying and doing. Political reporters might consider leaving more to the voters’ discretion and cut back on the time and effort they spend trying to show how smart they are.
Virtually everyone in the media was predicting a Dean victory in Iowa. But everyone was wrong. Political reporters were using the wrong criteria for judging the outcome of a process that relies on hundreds and thousands of individual choices.
This is a complaint we hear a lot – that the media concentrate too much on trying to predict who’s ahead and what the front-runner is doing to stay there. It’s horserace reporting vs. issues reporting.
David Birdsell, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York, explained the difference on PBS’s election Web site.
“Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of campaign stories,” Birdsell wrote. “‘Substance’ stories cover policy proposals and major campaign decisions such as the selection of a running mate. ‘Horserace’ stories cover the ebb and flow of a campaign’s political fortunes, focusing on strategic concerns.”
And here’s the problem, as Birdsell sees it: “Horserace reporting often overwhelms substantive reporting on the evening news, partly for reasons embedded in the format. Once a policy is announced and covered, it is no longer ‘news,’ even though a candidate may be spending all of every day trying to explain it to voters.
“The electoral struggle, on the other hand, is a constant source of news as campaigns air new advertisements, release new polls, and shift tactics to cope with new opportunities and challenges. The constant drumbeat of horserace coverage tends to boost viewer cynicism about elections, apparently confirming that ‘it’s all about politics’ rather than matters of state.”
The public says it wants more issues, but the political press finds it hard to break old habits. The horserace approach continues to dominate.
Dean gave every appearance of being the lead horse in that strange thing they do in Iowa – the caucuses. But he came in second, and then he continued to do worse than expected until he finally pulled out.
The press pundits were, or should have been, humbled. The traditional, insider measures of a candidate’s strength proved to be inadequate and inaccurate.
“It’s time for political reporters to swear off some long-standing bad habits,” The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz wrote in his media criticism column Feb. 23, after the Iowa caucuses.
Kurtz’s list of journalistic bad habits neatly describes the horserace approach: over-reliance on polls, endorsements, how much money a candidate has raised and the perceived viability of ground organization. Studying these tea leaves to gauge a candidate’s strength is part of political journalism’s “prediction-obsessed culture,” Kurtz said.
The shortcomings in the Dean campaign may have had more to do with Dean’s personality than with his positions on issues. But the debacle, a serious blow to the media’s tendency to judge the success of political reporting by its ability to predict, suggests that pundits should be more objective and less analytical. Voters keep saying they don’t appreciate excessive analysis, especially reporters’ attempts to decipher what motivates candidates to do what they do.
It’s reporting for consultants. Reporters want to show they’re savvy enough to recognize the spin that campaign handlers are putting on the information they release, so they focus on tactics instead of issues.
It only makes readers more cynical about the electoral process.
Here’s something else the media have taken it upon themselves to do: They cull out the bizarre and the hopeless candidates. It may be inadvertent, or it may be an inevitable consequence of hundreds of reporters going to the same places and reporting the same thing. It’s why the Dean Scream had such an impact. It was what another media critic, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, described:
“When political journalists predict the future, their predictions often seem to eclipse – and at times substitute for – the reporting they’re supposed to be based on. Worse, those predictions can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Look at the coverage of Howard Dean’s post-caucus speech in Iowa.”
The public doesn’t like it, either, when journalists try to tell them what motivates a politician to do what she or he does. But it’s everywhere you look: Stories that begin, “In an effort to reach out to his conservative base, President Bush today said he believes marriage is intended to be between a man and a woman.” Or, “Kerry’s comments suggested the candidate was eager to blunt criticism about his anti-war activities … .”
I suspect this sort of thing contributes to a growing public perception of bias in the media. I can’t cite any recent scholarly attempts to explain what causes that perception. But whatever the causes, a survey at year’s end by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that only 38 percent of the 1,506 adults surveyed said they didn’t detect any bias in the press. That compares with 48 percent in the 2000 presidential cycle.
The Pew pollsters also found that “Two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) say they prefer to get their news from sources that do not have a bias, while a quarter (25 percent) say they prefer news from sources that share their political point of view.”
The media’s approach to political reporting has changed in the 30 years since Watergate. Adam Gopnik, writing for the New Yorker in 1994, described it as “a transformation from an access culture to an aggression culture.”
The media’s test of success went from “intimacy with power” to “a willingness to stage visible, ritualized displays of aggression,” Gopnik wrote. “The reporter used to gain status by dining with his subjects; now he gains status by dining on them.”
Jay Rosen is chair of the journalism faculty at New York University. As one of the first and most widely quoted proponents of “public journalism,” he has a keen interest in journalism’s role in the political process.
He says reporters have to own up to the fact that they have become players in the game of politics, not just observers.
The press not only anoints the front-runners, it also arranges and moderates debates and decides who gets to participate. It decides who the experts are, who gets quoted and how often.
“Don’t play God; don’t pre-empt the future,” Rosen writes in the March/April Columbia Journalism Review.
Ideally, he says, reporters should cover what the candidates are doing and saying in the context of their competition for support; dig into candidates’ backgrounds to give voters a solid picture of where they come from and where the stand; “pose tough questions that illuminate the issues and hold actors to account”; occasionally focus on ordinary voters and their views as they make up their minds; and examine the major issues in the campaign, comparing similarities and differences in candidates’ positions.
They also should do things that the media’s critics might characterize as horserace reporting: They should, Rosen writes, “track the progress of the race and factors that go into winning it, like fund raising,” and “offer analysis and commentary for additional background and context.”
But all of these approaches should be in the media’s arsenal. Reporters shouldn’t confine their efforts to trying to decide who’s ahead and how he or she got there.
On his Web site, PressThink, Rosen quotes an e-mail letter from Richard A. Nangle, a reporter at the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette.
“I really detest horserace coverage and have for a long time,” Nangle wrote. “My stories, amazingly enough, actually include what the candidates are proposing for policy and make comparisons. I don’t know if horserace coverage can, or should, be completely eliminated from the newspaper. But it seems to me these campaign stories are like a recipe. You decide how much of each ingredient to include, and if you go too heavy on the horserace and insider talk, you’re like an apple pie with too much sugar and not enough apples.”
Nangle also points up another problem. There’s pressure on political reporters to do what everyone else is doing: “Too often we’re all just part of the same pack.” Journalists know their editors won’t be happy if they sit out a feeding frenzy such as the Dean Scream. So everyone ends up reporting the same story the same way.
Media created the Dean phenomenon, painting him as an angry, undisciplined, volatile candidate. And then everyone reported the Scream as the thing that brought him down.
“There is something almost nauseating about this cycle, when journalists can both predict the next turn in it and go on to execute that turn,” says Rosen. “I give three cheers to Richard Nangle for dissenting from the whole business. In an odd way, he is fighting for freedom of the press – against the press.”
Rosen writes that reporters like to think of themselves as “the professional crap-detector, de-illusioned and well informed, sifting out the half-truths, calling out the evasions, sizing up the scene in an analytical way, asking tough, necessary, cagey, impolite and just newsworthy questions.”
Sure, politicians waffle, scheme and even (gasp!) lie. Journalists ought to point that out. But they shouldn’t make it the sole focus of their reporting. It’s just as important to report the message the candidates are trying to emphasize as it is to report what they say when they are being disingenuous.
Fred Brown, co-chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.