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“Complete Freakin’ Imbeciles”


The mainstream media have been their usual infallible selves in covering the presidential primaries. Their failure to successfully predict the outcomes of particular contests is not the result of poor advance reporting, of course.  It stems, rather, from "upsets" that no human could possibly have anticipated — sometimes "surprising" or even "stunning" upsets.

 

Consider Hilary Clinton’s victory in the Democrats’ New Hampshire primary, for example. Like virtually every other media outlet, the Washington Post had declared she couldn’t win, and when she did, said the Post’s Chris Cillizza, it marked "one of the most stunning comeback victories in modern American politics."

 

Cillizza’s cop-out also marked one of the more extreme examples of the media attempting to cover its … well, you know what. But though extreme, it was not unusual. Happens all the time.

 

Voters who caused those journalistically inexplicable "upsets" by failing to vote as the media  told them they would vote weren’t the media’s only targets of blame. They blamed their errors on pollsters and pundits as well — interestingly including some who work directly for them.

 

As PBS’ Judy Woodruff noted, "Polling shaped most of the news coverage" of the New Hampshire primaries. Post writer Joel Achenbach described those who did the polling as "idiots," and the pundits who also predicted a Clinton defeat as "complete freakin’ imbeciles. "

 

Generally ignored, however, are the thousands of political reporters who also have had much to do with the media failures. They’ve been paying way too much attention to the know-it-all pollsters and pundits. It’s obvious, too, that they’ve actually been taking seriously the candidates’ spin masters, their own speculations and the ever-present conventional wisdom that points to for-sure winners and losers who often fail to win or lose as predicted.

 

Most important, political reporters are spending far too little pre-election time finding out for themselves how people are likely to vote – and, most especially, why.

 

You’d think they were sports reporters, who almost invariably are certain who’s going to win particular contests, and if they don’t win, damnit, it has to be an "upset."

 

Although the media’s principal claim to political importance — a reputation for accuracy — has suffered mightily, it hasn’t been all bad for them. The media, particularly the television variety, have been shoveling in their usual tons of money from those campaign ads that so muddy the political waters, possibly even more so than the reports about "upsets" and other figments of media imagination.

 

There’s also big money to be made after the campaigns are over and the votes are in. Broadcasters try to draw the maximum, advertiser-loving audiences by treating the dreary counting of votes already cast as if they were being cast minute-by-minute in dramatic night-long encounters. It’s as if the order in which the votes were counted made for a contest, as if they were runs being scored in a baseball game.

 

But even more than insulting our intelligence, the post-election reporting –  and especially the pollster and pundit-heavy pre-election campaign reporting – warps our perception of the democratic process itself . It assumes that the media know precisely how we will vote and that, if we don’t vote that way, we’re "upsetting" something other than poorly prepared journalists.

 

Copyright 2008 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist who who has covered politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

 

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