If Political Scientists Wrote the News

Pundits applaud the deft skewering of their profession

This article is from the archive of our partner .

"What if political scientists covered the news?" Last Friday, prompted by a Columbia Journalism Review piece, Slate's Christopher Beam attempted to answer this question, posting a humorous take on the political issues of the day from the perspective of an academic. He begins with a discussion of Obama's response to the oil spill: "Pundits argued that he needed to show more emotion. Their analysis, however, should be viewed in light of the economic pressures on the journalism industry combined with a 24-hour news environment and a lack of new information about the spill itself." Moving deeper into his satirical critique of horse-race political journalism, he points out that "connecting [a] minute blip in the polls with Obama's reluctance to emote or alleged failure to send enough boom to the Gulf is, frankly, absurd." He winds up with the topics on every political journalist's mind: the midterms and, ultimately, the faceoff between Obama and the mystery Republican nominee in the 2012 presidential election.

Poll numbers also confirmed that Americans are in an anti-incumbent mood. … Ha! Just kidding. The anti-Washington narrative was concocted by dominant media outlets based on the outcomes of a statistically insignificant handful of largely unrelated races. Sorry ... [Obama's] ... charisma, compelling personal story, and professional political operation will prove formidable. Actually, Obama will probably win because he's the incumbent. And because voters always go with the guy who's taller.

Lobbed at political journalists and political scientists like a sausage into a canine fray, the piece has had roughly the expected effect. Some feel delighted, others vindicated, and some are just plain grumpy.

  • Would That Political Journalism Worked This Way  Then, dreams liberal Matt Yglesias at Think Progress, "the articles about horse-race politics would be boring--and rightly so—which means that if you wanted readers for your articles about politics, you'd have to try to find a way to make policy writing engaging." Doing that without "human narrative drama" might be hard, "but at the end of the day superficially dry policy debates actually have massive consequences for very real human beings all around the country and the world, so it should hardly be impossible ... "
  • Note: He's Not Actually Advocating Academic Takeover  "Really, the piece is far more a critique of mass media than it is an exhortation of political science," observes Steven Taylor at Outside the Beltway.
  • Self-Directed Critique?  "Christopher Beam concludes that political journalism isn't worth much," summarize Politico's Ben Smith and Gabriel Beltrone in Smith's daily links roundup. "Perhaps he should get a real job."
  • Inspired by Beam: Politics According to a Sociologist  Conor Friedersdorf tries his hand at the new trend: "Absent from the dialogue surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill," he writes, beginning his mock report as if a sociologist, " ... are the roles of class, race and especially gender. Due to the environmental devastation wrought by the catastrophe, which is likely to fall heaviest on the working poor, it is understandable that attention is largely focused on efforts to plug the oil well undertaken by British Petroleum, a corporation founded in imperial Britain to exploit the oil resources of people of color." Gleefully, he concludes by noting that "the textual and sub-textual paradigms emanating from the White House are likely to shift after election day."
  • Very Clever  "Friedersdorf's piece is pretty darn good," admits The New Republic's Jonathan Chait about the spinoff satire. But he predicts "a progressively less-amusing internet trope. By the time this devolves into 'What if biologists wrote the news?,' we're all going to want to kill ourselves." Pollster Richard Bridger and international politics professor Dan Drezner are a step ahead, recalling a few similar satirical articles, with Bridger commenting that "every so often a journalist decides to get all in-your-face and counter-intuitive with a really clever article that in fact isn't. I am glad they put it out there, because it is a necessary corrective, but it is also pretty much recycled news." Drezner loves all the pieces, regardless.
  • This Is What We've Been Telling Everyone!  Andrew Gelman, Columbia statistics and political science professor, is pleased that at least someone is getting the message he and Harvard political scientist Gary King tried hard to get across back in 1993: presidential elections are really quite predictable--the minute-by-minute polls are rather useless.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.