Does the Political Press Focus Too Much on Inside Baseball?

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Coverage would be more relevant to citizens if reporters held Congress responsible for passing bills and President Obama responsible for signing or vetoing them.


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Reuters

Sportswriter Bill James once offered definitive thoughts on the difference between an "inside-baseball" outlook and an "outside-baseball" outlook. 

"You know the expression about not being able to see the forest for the trees?" he asked. "Let's use that. What are the differences between the way a forest looks when you are inside the forest and the way it looks from the outside? The insider has a much better view of the details. He knows what the moss looks like, how light it grows around the base of an oak and how thickly it will cling to a sycamore. He knows the smells in the air and the tracks on the ground; he can guess the age of a redbud by peeling off a layer of bark."

The outsider knows none of that.

"No sir, indeed I don't," James acknowledged. "There will be in this book no new tales about the things that happen on a team flight, no sudden revelations about the way that drugs and sex and money can ruin a championship team. I can't tell you what a locker room smells like, praise the Lord."

But by stepping back and looking at the forest from a distance he could discern certain things that mattered more better than his insider colleagues. He knew that there was no actual basis for the widespread belief in clutch hitters; and that of course a particular player who expected to flourish after getting traded didn't hit as well outside of Fenway -- he'd always batted better at home than away. "It is not only that the trees have a vested interest in the subject," he explained, "and thus they might lie to you or believe what it is in their best interests to believe. The trees really are not, when you think about it, in a very good position to evaluate the issue."

The trees were focused on emotion, superstition, ritual, relationships, and human drama. The "outside-baseball" analysts stepped back and analyzed outcomes, which often worked out better. James's advice:
I've never said, never thought, that it was better to be an outsider than it was to be an insider, that my view of the game was better than everyone else's. It's different; better in some ways, worse in some ways. What I have said is, since we are outsiders, since the players are going to put up walls to keep us out here, let us use our position as outsiders to what advantage we can. Let us back off from the trees, look at the forest as a whole, and see what we can learn from that.
"Let us," he concluded, "stop pretending to be insiders if we're not."  

****
Washington politics coverage is so deep in the weeds right now that even the most educated Americans can be forgiven for tuning out. Just ponder the big impenetrable story of late: 

Sequester negotiations!

If a person were so inclined, he or she could spend all day reading news and opinion stories about fiscal politics without running out of things to read. What happened during the debt-ceiling debate? How did "fiscal cliff" negotiations proceed? Whose idea was the sequester? As President Obama and House Republicans put it in motion, what did both sides regard as good-faith negotiations? Is the White House negotiating in good faith? Are Republicans? What does it mean to negotiate in good faith? Who is to blame for the ongoing impasse? Who are the American people likely to blame? Are efforts to manipulate public opinion delaying a workable agreement?

One way of looking at things is that governing is complicated, and journalists need to roll with it, doing the best that they can to explain the inside baseball. When Bob Woodward says, "I spent two months reporting on how they came to the sequester," he's presumably operating on that theory. But covering politics in that way is a choice. What if the political press is doing a disservice to Americans by making it? What if we're needlessly tailoring our content to the prejudices and preferences of insiders without even fully realizing that there are other options available? What if this particular option more often than not empowers whoever is most adept at spin?

I see no way around explaining something as complicated and jargon-laden as the sequester, even though many educated Americans will either misunderstand it or tune it out completely. But daily accounts of the closed-door negotiations? Regular analysis of their tenor? Pieces on the inner thoughts and feelings of the people involved? Capturing all that accurately, given that every source involved has an incentive to lie or spin, seems impossible to achieve with any consistency. Perhaps it can be achieved, occasionally, by reporters who spend many months reconstructing events with as many sources as possible. But the press as it now operates attempts to publish this sort of journalism on an up-to-the-minute, look-what-just-happened basis.

Isn't there a better way?

There's no direct analog to statistical analysis in baseball. But where Congress and the White House are concerned, what if the press put much greater emphasis put on "the sausage" and much less on the sausage-making? What if we judged legislators on their votes, Obama on what legislation he signs and vetoes, and left it at that?

Wrote press critic Jack Shafer in a 2011 column describing how new media has changed the job of political journalists:
They've gained new leverage over their editors, who in the green-eyeshade days of journalism could use their power of the limited number of column-inches available in print to cut and otherwise simplify their stories. Now, with there being no shortage of space to fill, the writer calls the shots and the editor, fearful that he'll get the blame if he's beaten by the competition, is more likely to approve stories he might once have dismissed as too technical, too inside baseball, and too complicated for a news outlet. ("Save it for your book, kid.")

Thus liberated, the political journalist can write at wire-service speed, even availing himself to tiny microbursts of reporting, while dumping many of the conventions that make wire reporters miserable -- such as the inverted news pyramid that puts the most important news at the top so that distant newspaper editors can cut two, three, four, or five paragraphs at the bottom to make it fit their pages.

I'd never want to go back to that earlier era or its conventions. Oftentimes, added complexity is useful and warranted. But the fact that there is now space for all the inside baseball doesn't mean that it can be reliably reported with accuracy, or that it is the most appropriate context. Are we really seeking out the most important, relevant information? Or does the focus on inside baseball actually serve the interests of political journalists and those they cover, but few others? Are we as attuned as we ought to be to the fact that the trees don't always have the best perspective? Are we remembering that outcomes matter more than the intentions of the players?

Many of my favorite political journalists have a knack for unearthing facts I find relevant and packaging them in insightful ways. I am in no way questioning the value of original beat reporting. But in instances when votes, signaturesm and vetoes can speak for themselves, isn't that better?

I pose it as a question on purpose.

I think so, but tentatively. I want to provoke debate. What if Congressional coverage focused on the merits of proposed legislation, committee votes, and floor votes; if rather than signalling seriousness by negotiating with Obama, legislators had to pass something to be taken seriously, regardless of what was said behind the scenes; what if Obama then signed or vetoed those bills and was evaluated on that basis, rather than being judged as orchestrator-in-chief? Who cares what he said in a private phone call with House Speaker John Boehner, whose ego was or wasn't bruised, who "walked away from the table" during a particular session, or any other theatrics?

Said Tom Brokaw Monday: "The president, by my lights, spent entirely too much time the last two weeks campaigning, in effect, out around the country .... He ought to have been maybe at Camp David with Boehner and members of his team." Is he right? Who can possible say with authority and credibility? What if instead, we acted like Congress is responsible for passing something and Obama must take responsibility for either signing tor vetoing it? I bet a bill would have been sent to him.

Granted, focusing on outcomes is an imperfect way to assign credit and blame. But would the incentives nevertheless be better than in the insider model of politics coverage? Would reporting be more reliable? More relevant? Would politicians be less likely to posture -- or, at least, would their posturing take the form of actually passing legislation to be adopted or rejected? Judging politicians in the way I suggest would be far more comprehensible and manageable to the average American voter, who has no time to parse who did what behind the scenes.

And could that system be gamed as easily?

There ought to be no shame in political journalists acknowledging that they often don't possess real insider knowledge -- so many who try to report the inside story get a whole lot of it wrong in hindsight. Woodward, who spent all that time reporting on the origins of the sequester, accurately told us that the Obama Administration thought up that particular mechanism, but also that the White House and Democrats agreed that a fix wouldn't involve any new revenue, which is incorrect, or so other insiders say -- not that it's easy for the public to judge who was right.

So what do you think: Would it be a good thing if the press stopped putting negotiations under a microscope that requires the help of interested parties to focus? If the press emphasized actions and outcomes more? If the press stopped trying to apportion blame, would politicians posture less often? Would holding elected officials accountable for the laws that they pass, sign or veto be enough?

Please, political junkies, complicate my critique.
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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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