What If the Press Frankly Acknowledged Its Role in Campaigns?

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Arbitrary journalistic conventions inevitably influence how primaries are covered. Why not  say so openly?

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Arbitrary conventions shape how the primaries are covered.

Early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are deemed especially important, rather than being assigned weight commensurate with the number of delegates at stake. Candidates are sometimes treated as "winners" even when they haven't won any delegates, so long as they've "exceed expectations." There is an obsession with momentum: candidates are said to be gaining or losing momentum; suffering from the fact that a primary in an unfriendly state is interrupting their momentum; or trying their utmost to stop an opponent's momentum, lest he or she "coast" to the nomination.

There are reasons for these conventions. They're shaped by experience. As every experienced political reporter knows, for example, victory in an early state really can impact a campaign beyond the small number of delegates gained. It can trigger a significant spike in campaign contributions.

Or a wave of newly positive media coverage.

That's where things get tricky. Say a candidate wins New Hampshire. Journalists expect that he or she will get a boost, so they report its likelihood. But isn't it then impossible to tell what caused the boost? Was it that the winning candidate proved to donors or voters that he or she is capable of winning? Or was the boost caused by the endless assertions in the media about the boost?

How much campaign coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

As a political journalist familiar with how the press behaves, I agree with the New York Times when it reported, after Rick Santorum's Tuesday night sweep in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota, that it "could scramble the dynamic of the Republican race." But part of why I think that's true is the certainty that newspapers, network anchors, cable news pundits, and Web journalists will all say so. What few outlets typically acknowledge is the degree to which their own coverage and the stuff published or broadcast by their competitors are a primary mechanism by which the scrambling takes place! It is easy to imagine a political press that embraced different, equally plausible conventions -- that delegates are what matters, for example, and that only naive ignoramuses would attribute importance to the results of a race with few or no delegates. 

That understanding would cause the press to confer marginal importance on Iowa or New Hampshire. Wouldn't the end result be the emergence of a very different campaign, and perhaps even a different outcome?

So far, this primary season has confounded journalistic expectations.

As Dave Weigel puts it:

Political reporters make for lousy gravediggers. Find a primary, pick a day, and I can point you to a story pronouncing the campaign "over" or "almost over" or over, pending the judgment of a proverbial Fat Lady. Let's make it easy and start last month. On Jan. 10, as Romney was winning New Hampshire, NPR quoted a Republican strategist who counted the margins and pronounced the race "over." On Jan. 18, the Los AngelesTimes informed us that South Carolina's primary "could essentially end" the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns. Two days later, NBC News told us that a Romney win in the first southern primary would make him "the de facto nominee."
When Romney lost, we got pre-Florida primary headlines like "Can Mitt Romney recover from his South Carolina 'disaster?'" Days later, Howard Kurtz was tap-tapping about the "distinct possibility" that the media would "bury Newt Gingrich for the third time" in Florida. No one was talking about Rick Santorum until yesterday, when the Wall Street Journal saluted Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri for "puncturing Mitt Romney's claim to be the unstoppable front-runner."

Given the frequency with which speculative analysis is wrong, it would probably be a good thing if journalists engaged in less of it. But horse race analysis isn't going away: readers want it, journalists want to produce it, and no style of journalism will ever end when both of those things are true.

The reform I'd suggest is for journalists to be less coy about what's going on. It isn't unduly meta to fully acknowledge the role the press plays in campaigns, even if doing so is a bit awkward. For example, The New York Times writes that many in the Republican establishment were urging GOP activists to fall in line behind Mitt Romney, but voters in three states refused to do so.

The story goes on:


Instead, the most conservative elements of the Republican Party's base expressed their unease with Mr. Romney by sending a resounding message that they preferred someone else. And they collectively revived the candidacy of Mr. Santorum, who has been languishing in the background since a narrow victory in Iowa's caucuses at the beginning of the year.

What if that last sentence read:

And they collectively revived the candidacy of Mr. Santorum, who won a narrow victory in Iowa's caucuses at the beginning of the year, but raised less money than his rivals and found it more difficult to attract free media attention too because many editors, reporters and pundits underestimated him, either erroneously speculating that he couldn't possibly sweep Tuesday's primaries, or else ignoring him until immediately before the vote, only to lavish new respect on him afterward. He'll almost certainly generate more headlines and soundbites in coming days, free attention his campaign needs given its fundraising disadvantage.

Isn't that more informative than passively noting that he "has been languishing in the background," as if that occurred as a natural phenomenon? Assumptions are always going to be built into campaign journalism, but they needn't remain static and unexamined. Perhaps shedding light on the assumptions that shape the way candidates are covered, and the impact the press is having on the race, would help the least defensible practices to be examined and discredited. 


Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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