Monday, January 07, 2008

Common un-wisdom

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the immortal Chicago Tribune headline screaming “Dewey Defeats Truman,” pundits and pollsters still have a tin ear for the sentiment of the American electorate.

While it is amusing to see modern voters defying the expectations of the quants in the same way they led Gallup and the Tribune to believe Thomas E. Dewey was headed for the White House in 1948, the reliance today on misbegotten surveys and stale Beltway “wisdom” has led to a crisis in political coverage that has produced a prodigious number of off-pitch stories in the early stages of the 2008 campaign.

With all the other challenges (declining audience, sales and profits) pummeling the media, a catastrophic collapse of credibility is the last thing they need. But that’s what they have.

Notwithstanding the wretched excess of thousands of me-too correspondents in Iowa, New Hampshire and other bellwether locales, most of the media missed the story that Americans are fed up with the increasingly toxic atmosphere that has characterized the national government since Lyndon Johnson left the White House. Instead of working collaboratively to solve the pressing problems of the day as they had in more genteel times, the leaders of both political parties over the years have come to regard their essential duty as spoiling the efforts of the other side.

Though it has taken a long time for the American people to reject this form of Spy vs. Spy politics, the Iowa vote and the early soundings from New Hampshire suggest that they now may be doing so. If you reduce the messages of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee to a common denominator, each won in the caucuses by promising to end the long, dark, unproductive era of cross-party warfare.

But this sea change in American political sentiment, if it indeed is sustained, was lost for the most part on the media, as journalists focused on the money raised, endorsements collected, consultants hired, organizations fielded and polling fibrilations experienced by the candidates who were playing the game according to the customary rules of engagement. Until a week or two ago, so far as the media mob knew, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney were the leaders, because they were succeeding by all the conventional indicators.

While today’s coverage is all-Obama all the time as the media feverishly attempt to rewrite since Iowa the history they botched on the first draft, it is instructive to note, thanks to Pollster.Com, that some surveys even days before the caucus still had Hillary in the lead. In fairness, most polls did pick up the Mike Huckabee surge and the Des Moines Register got both races right.

If the media had disregarded the polls and the common “wisdom” to do a better job of original, primary reporting, they would have discovered that Americans disdain the dirty way that business typically is conducted in Washington.

Accordingly, journalists would have questioned the polling data and other assumptions that suggested a majority of Americans would opt for Hillary Clinton, one of the principal protagonists in the long-running food fight, because a vote for Hillary essentially would be a vote for four (or eight) more years of un-statesmanlike conduct on both sides of the aisle. (Hillary may be the better Clinton to be president, but timing is everything and this isn't her time.)

Somehow, almost all the election coverage to date missed the profond – and, in retrospect, glaringly obvious – shift in the attitude of the electorate. If the press aims to regain its relevance, reporters need to stop obsessing over the polls, communing with self-interested political operatives, chasing Drudge, CNN and the wires, and, above all else, interviewing each other.

The story is not on the campaign bus or in the press room. It's out there with the real people. It's time to go get it.


Blogger vdavisson said...

I wonder if the press isn't hoping for a Spy vs. Spy campaign, because the game of "Let's you and him fight" is what has always made for good journalistic fodder. And of course, regardless of the guy at the top, the congressional delegations are likely to be divided by a huge left-right gap.

There are so many entrenched interests in Washington that a thorough cleanup is unlikely any time soon. Term limits would have helped, but they are apparently too "nineties" to consider these days. The press probably sees this, too, and welcomes the conflict.

4:21 PM  

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