Greetings Altercators, Reed here. Eric’s off this week, but here’s his latest Nation column: “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Thirteen Days…and Fifty Years,” which revisits some of the common myths of the incident that readers of his book “When Presidents Lie” will no doubt recognize.
As for me, the past few days in New Jersey weren’t without some drama as well, but I was definitely one of the lucky ones. Many more of us in the Garden State, where following the devastation from Sandy we might temporarily rename ourselves the Generator, Sump Pump and Chainsaw State, didn’t fare so well. Fortunately, we now have a president that actually gives a damn about things like disaster recovery and a governor whose facility for wielding pomposity and self-righteousness like a cudgel might finally have found a worthwhile cause to fight for. And not for nothing, but if the latter’s effusive praise of the former effectively acts as a political shiv to Mitt Romney’s plans after next Tuesday, well then I guess the old saying about every cloud having a silver lining really is true. To be sure, other less-than-pure theories abound about the reasons behind Christie’s very sudden appreciation for Obama’s competence. But in terms of ridiculously wild speculation, I submit that none will surpass The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who believes that, this being Jersey, maybe subconsciously, this all comes back to Bruce.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Election
by Reed Richardson
I don’t profess to know, on my own, what path our country will have chosen come next Wednesday. But as a journalist, I take some comfort in the fact that not knowing something is a professional necessity. The attempt to fill that gap is what propels you forward every day, drives your curiosity, and—in my case recently—keeps you up at night.
By the same token, however a healthy press corps does not begin each day from the stance that it knows nothing. Journalism, more so than perhaps any other pursuit, involves the steady accretion of knowledge, adding to today what one knew yesterday. It’s a never-ending process, in other words. So it is not surprising that one of the common occupational hazards among the media is when it projects precisely this same mindset onto its coverage. And nowhere is this proclivity for process-obsessed journalism more prone to occur than in the context of a political campaign, which steadily marches toward an inevitable, clear-cut conclusion.
The press’s fascination with political scorekeeping is an understandable failure then. It’s not always easy, after all, to churn out something new, day after day, about a candidate’s positions or policies—unless, ahem, they constantly change. But where a candidate stands versus their opponent is an angle that is always sitting there, waiting to be picked up, pored over, and pushed out.
During the Republican primaries, this horserace coverage dominated, with nearly two out of ever three stories focused on “strategy,” as this Pew survey shows. And since shifting to the general election mode this spring, talk of “Who’s-up? Who’s-down?” has only been magnified by the Washington press corps. Each tracking poll update or new swing state survey gets treated as divine revelation, worthy of Tweeting out to the world and parsing for hints of imagined qualitative narratives like “momentum” and “confidence.”
The sad truth is, though, the news value of these incessant horserace snapshots is dubious at best when Election Day is still months or even weeks away. Most of what these polls capture is, in fact, merely noise rather than real signals of changes in voter attitudes. Indeed, over the course of the past six months, voter sentiment has remained quite stable, shifting only occasionally but then regressing back to roughly the same mean it started at in May. There’s a big downside to all this breathless and mostly worthless poll watching, however, it crowds out more substantive comparisons of actual policy differences between candidates in favor of content that is of little informational value to voters.
What’s more, this reliance upon poll data for filling the newshole can exacerbate the press’s worst instincts. Seeking a story with broad, national appeal, the press myopically treats the race for the presidency as a single contest rather a series of 51 separate ones. In the quest to break a new news angle, the media likewise can’t resist the temptation to emphasize strange outlier polls that probably merit the least amount of attention. For example, who can forget Drudge’s infamous “GALLUP SHOCK” post in 2008, that sent the Beltway media chasing its tail for a week talking of a McCain comeback that didn’t exist. Or how about this past week’s Rasmussen poll of Ohio that spawned its predictable share of “Romney Takes Lead in Ohio” stories, even though this was that poll was the first out of the last 27 polls in that state that found Obama trailing. (And that’s not even taking into account Rasmussen’s GOP-leaning “house effect” of one to two percentage points.)
All this presents yet another crucial point—for all its practice, the press really isn’t very good at horserace coverage. On the whole, the establishment media still suffers from rudimentary, linear thinking, often lacks the statistical expertise to truly grasp the numbers behind the polling science, and has been severely outstripped when it comes to understanding how political campaigns persuade and influence voters. As Sasha Issenberg, Slate& columnist and author of “The Victory Lab,” explains in this New York Times post, which really worth reading in its entirety:
But the reality about horse-race journalism is far more embarrassing to the press and ought to be just as disappointing to the readers who consume our reporting. The truth is that we aren’t even that good at covering the horse race. If the 2012 campaign has been any indication, journalists remain unable to keep up with the machinations of modern campaigns, and things are likely only to get worse.
Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either “grilled” or “broiled.”
Issenberg goes on to argue that deep-rooted analytical coverage of campaign strategy and processdoeshave an important role to play in our democracy, as it unveils the coalitions and levers that a political candidate relies upon to win. The press, he argues, remains unequipped if not downright hostile to embracing the techniques necessary to fulfill this mission. And savvy campaigns work to exploit this knowledge gap.
For instance, much has been made in the press these past few weeks about how the GOP has closed the ground game gap. RNC officials are eager to trot out impressive stats about “voter contacts” as a way to display confidence and counter any talk of Obama momentum. Even a recent Pew poll reinforced this idea that Romney has essentially erased any turnout edge held by Obama’s vast field office advantage.
But as Issenberg explains in this insightful Slate article, counting “voter contacts” is a crude, and rather vague metric at best. It, notably, doesn’t reveal much about what the contact is trying to accomplish or who is being targeted. His in-depth reporting here not only demonstrates that the Obama campaign is nearly a generation ahead of the Republicans in its voter persuasion efforts, it deftly reveals how even reporters at prominent publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times can be so thoroughly out of their depth that they writing erroneous, fawning stories like this and this.
Of course, tallying up who’s winning and who’s losing becomes a much more legitimate and compelling story once Election Day approaches, particularly since more than one out of three will have already cast their ballot before next Tuesday. And yet, now that the real news value of who’s winning the race for the presidency has finally arrived, the conventional wisdom from within much of the Beltway media—who for months have tracked and studied the polls—amounts to little more than “nobody knows.”
That the press corps and pundits’ predictive powers have abandoned them at precisely the moment they’d be most valuable to their audience is not only ironic, it’s symbolic of the overall disconnect between the press and the public. What good was all that accumulating and broadcasting of hundreds of polling data points, one might ask, if not to give us a better sense of the state or the race at this climactic moment? But this journalistic timidity, again, is rooted more in a hidebound commitment to remaining neutral than anything else. Within objective journalism, there’s just no professional upside to presenting evidence that supports the case that one candidate is winning, even if there are analytical tools readily available that might show this.
For instance, an engaged voter who seeks out several of the statistical polling aggregators that now exist online might learn that rather than a “toss up,” Obama’s chances of reelection right now actually run anywhere from roughly 80 percent all the way up to (!) 99 percent. Or that, based on an extremely high confidence level of regression analysis, the president’s estimated Electoral Vote tally based on state polling stretches from a solid 281 votes all the way to a blowout level of 332 votes. That both conservative and mainstream media outlets have reacted to these statistical models with some the same vicious and heretical disdain that the Papacy unleashed on Galileo is perhaps not a shock, as these tools upend their authority and democratize what was once its sole purview. If access to candidates—who stubbornly stick to stump speech talking points—and campaign insiders—whose veracity should never be questioned as long as they’re speaking off the record—don’t qualify as the best resources from which to accurately assess the outcome of an election than what, really, is the media adding to the discourse most of the time?
That is the fundamental, and increasingly uncomfortable, dilemma that confronts the Washington press corps as this long campaign winds to a close. But this isn’t something the media seems ready or willing to hear—that the fear of being perceived as choosing sides only ensures that the public will keep turning elsewhere to find evidence of the truth. No matter what happens next Tuesday—whether it’s all the polling data or all the campaign spin to the contrary that ultimately is proven right—the press, by failing to be candid and intellectually honest about this presidential race, will have lost the battle either way.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Gibson, B.C., Canada
Just read your excellent climate silence post in The Nation and thought that you might be interested in an admitted climate alarmist trying to make the case that climate change is an emergency.
What I'm offering is a selection of science articles and commentary on what is a heretical subject because “it is the economy stupid,” especially in these very uncertain global economic times, and this makes climate change action after at least two decades of procrastination very inconvenient indeed— so inconvenient that climate silence reigns.
Since I wrote in July there has been a record Arctic ice cap melt—best article: Arctic Sea Ice: What, Why and What Next' by Ramez Naam, at the Scientific American website. In late August, two new global carbon budget science papers came out basically saying staying under 2 degrees C is now economically impossible: “Development of emissions pathways meeting a range of long-term temperature targets” [PDF] and the latest Anderson-Bows “A New Paradigm for Climate Change” as well as Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” based on this very important but mostly completely ignored global carbon budget science.
In one sentence: 'Why isn't climate-change-as-emergency the main debate given the overwhelming science?' Because it's very, very inconvenient. But climate isn't going away; it's just a matter of time.
Thanks again for your strong voice and best of luck,