Horse Race Journalism Is Not Our Fault

There’s been a little buzz lately over the Washington Post‘s ombudsman piece the other day criticizing the Post for too much “horse race” coverage of the health care debate. Putative causes have cited political obsession among reporters and editors, profit maximizing behavior, and competitive necessity, but Kevin Drum offers this explanation.

This is only going to get worse.  I don’t think mainstream news outlets have ever been all that good at explaining policy, but they’ve probably gotten worse over the years as attention spans have shortened and the media environment has gotten ever louder and more ubiquitous.  You really can’t explain healthcare reform in two minutes, but fewer and fewer people are willing to sit around for much longer than that.

The fault, in other words, lies not in the media, but in ourselvesThe mainstream media may have written ten times as much about the townhalls as they did about the actual substance of the healthcare proposals on the table, but the blogosphere only did a little better. Even here in wonkland, the outrage of the day is a much more tempting blog topic than reimbursement rates for Medicare.

I’m not so sure about this. First, with respect to the town halls specifically, coverage in the mainstream media and cable news was somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the fact that lunatics and their cynical agitators knew that nutty behavior would drive coverage spawned more and more nutty behavior, and more and more coverage of nutty behavior. If the media decided that accurate reporting of events meant not giving disproportionate attention to a minority of people, it’s unlikely things would have played the way they did. But this is all secondary.

My memory could be flawed, but I’m pretty sure most of people I read on the blogosphere spent their energy debunking some of the absurd claims made in the town halls or talking about animating factors, not bloviating about political strategy. Even if the general topic was the same, the conversation was totally different. Whereas people with blogs would address statements made in town halls and expose them as ludicrous fantasies, the mainstream media would report the events and discuss the ramifications for certain political actors. The former is helpful from a standpoint of informing the public, the latter is not. I’ve said it a million times, but the point of politics is governing, not winning debates, but the mainstream media seems to disagree with me. And certainly, not all discourse in the blogosphere was informative, but it was certainly better than coverage in the mainstream media.

Anyway, it’s hard to see how this improves. As Kevin noted earlier in his post, horse race coverage partially stems from the need to report news, and twists and turns in legislative sausage making happen far more frequently than policy proposals. However, that doesn’t mean coverage of politics has to be removed from the policies being discussed to the absurd extent they often are. For example, if reporters feel compelled to report that a gun-toting loon opposes a “government take-over” of the health care system, the reporter could at least mention that no such thing is under consideration, the unctuous blabbering of GOP operatives notwithstanding.

The Worst Idea of the Day

So in Ezra Klein’s chat today, someone asked this question:

Durham, NC:  So, my Fantasy Football League has its draft tonight, and it got me thinking: This hobby has swept the nation and is credited with adding interest to even the lackluster games on Sunday. I know CNN had a political market game back during the primaries where candidates and questions were treated like stocks that people could buy and sell. What do you say we create a Fantasy Congress League where people draft legislators and get points based on their performance? I think it could restore interest in democracy without all the town hall crazies.

Ezra Klein: I don’t know about restoring interest in democracy, and I don’t know exactly how you’d measure it, but I’m sure the Sunlight Foundation or Pew or someone would happily fund this experiment, and a lot of obsessives would happily play.

Let me just be on record as saying this is the worst idea I’ve ever seen for “restoring interest in democracy.” Not in the sense that it would be bomb, because I’m sure it would extremely popular, and as the questioner points out, people playing would probably spend more time learning about committees, rules, and other such minutiae. Nevertheless, this cleaving of politics from governing is the exact dynamic that Politico captures and magnifies. Listen, we don’t have government to please the egomaniacs who run for higher office, we have government to solve societal problems. This sort of obsessive coverage of who “wins” or “loses” in a given legislative battle misses the entire point. If the Republicans manage to “win” the health care debate, we’re going to leave some 46 million people with health care insurance, many others subject to the capricious whims of private insurers, and continue on an unsustainable financial path. This isn’t a game.

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More on Politico

Truevcu says this about my post on Politico:

As much as I enjoy(ed) politico as a source of news I find myself gradually more and more unable to refute the argument that, while not as hopelessly biased as FoxNews, are drifting into a very bad place.

Actually, I disagree — the primary reason Politico is egregiously terrible is precisely because of its assiduous adherence to neutrality. Because the publication emphasizes balance uber alles, disingenuous arguments and talking points exist, unqualified, next to legitimate — or at least, more legitimate — good faith arguments. This is compounded by Politico’s obsessively political focus, so policy gets even shorter shrift than it might in other publications. It’s worth noting that this problem is endemic to all traditional media coverage to varying degrees.

I also hate Politico because it feeds and purveys the notion that political considerations drive governance. Of course, there will never be complete seperation of politics and policy, but Politco covers government like fantasy sports. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who won? Who Lost? These questions should obviously be of secondary importance when considering matters of public policy, but jackals like Jim VandeHei, Chris Matthews, and Maureen Dowd spin — indeed relish spinning — governing into a giant soap opera, and becuase of their outsized voice, amplify the importance of political posturing in governance. The “narratives” they so dispassionately report become obtuse self-fulfilling prophecies, which quite unlike soap operas, have real impacts on real people. Like “balance”, this is hardly Politico‘s affliction alone, but for my money is arguably the most pernicious force in politics.

Center Left

There was a great deal of talk after the election about how the country was actually “center right,” and based on the Obama Administration’s proclivity to accomodate poopy-pants Republicans on common sense stimulus measures, so between the two, you might think a Gallup poll of party advantage wouldn’t look like this.

When the Only Tool You’ve Got is a Hammer…

…Everything looks like a nail. The Politico reaches new depths of transparently insipid coverage.

There is, nonetheless, a political logic to vacationing in Hawaii. Part of Obama’s success was always his authenticity. Aside from some wince-inducing bowling and sipping of beer, he rarely attempted to be somebody he wasn’t. He didn’t hoist a shotgun or pretend to be a hunter; on the other end of the spectrum, he never pretended to have other politicians’ gift for feeling individuals’ pain, or cry at town halls. Vacationing in Hawaii, for no reason except the obvious ones, is good politics because that authenticity is, these days, perhaps the most valuable political commodity. It will be interesting to see if Hawaii remains the “Western White House” after he takes office.

How about it’s because he spent a great deal of his childhood there and it’s a fantastic place to spend a winter holiday?Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

On a related note, how long gone is our society’s moral compass when acting earnestly is read not simply as genuine, but as an act that projects earnestness? Can anyone just be something anymore?

For it Before I Was Against It

“The tone of this campaign would have been a lot different had Barack Obama agreed to do 10 town-hall meetings with me…”

“…but this day isn’t about partisanship, let’s celebrate each other’s service…”


ZOMG Politics Exist!!!

David Brooks writes today about the “weirdness” of the current race, noting that Obama has become the candidate of “policy change” and McCain has assumed the mantle of “systematic change”, apparently referring to McCain’s desire to balance the a $400 billion deficit by reducing pork-barrel spending. But as Brooks even points out in his own column, Obama was once the agent of “systematic change” (though he doesn’t mention that McCain was previously the “experience” candidate). But who cares? This, as Brooks points out briefly and then ignores, is the point.

The Obama change is more responsible and specific, but it has all the weirdness of a Brookings Institution report. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The McCain promise of change is comprehensive and vehement, though it’s hard to know how it would actually work in office.

I’m not sure if it’s always been this way — and maybe its part of some self-sustaining survivalism on behalf of the punditry — but the whole point of government is to govern, so it’s frustrating to see people who know better waste their time fetishizing the aesthetics of governance. Politics are the means through which government runs, but politics are not in themselves the end. So long as democracy demands politicians are held accountable to popular opinion, there will always be a need to cater and shape public perception. No amount of blustering about cutting pork-barrel spending will change this basic tenet of democracy, and more importantly, these symbolic gestures are mostly just that: symbolic.

The simple fact of the McCain campaign, as Brooks seems to note but not particularly lament, is that McCain’s posturing is purely political. As Brooks also notes, but does lament (as early as June), Obama’s policies have always been steadfastly liberal, even if his rhetoric assumed some aspects of post-partisanship. Why is it that leading intellectuals like David Brooks decry the politics required to implement “responsible and specific” change, while lauding those who advocate essentially unsubstantiated, and more importantly, impossible to implement “systemic change?” The politics aren’t the point, the policies are. Grow up.