Off Target: Why Is the Media Consensus So Often Wrong about Political Campaigns? and Isn't There a Better Way to Cover Elections?

By Farhi, Paul | American Journalism Review, April-May 2008 | Go to article overview

Off Target: Why Is the Media Consensus So Often Wrong about Political Campaigns? and Isn't There a Better Way to Cover Elections?


Farhi, Paul, American Journalism Review


Every presidential campaign of recent memory has produced its share of Dewey-Defeats-Truman press embarrassments, but Campaign '08 has been particularly rich in bogus media narratives. Ever since the races began in earnest last year, the blown calls have just kept on coming. Many of the storylines around which the political press has pegged its coverage haven't even come close to falling within a reasonable margin of error.

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According to the media consensus:

* John McCain's campaign for the Republican nomination, beset by weak fundraising, staff disarray and conservative hostility, was all but finished. "How much worse can it get for McCain at this point?" asked Tucker Carlson on MSNBC last August.

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* Hillary Clinton's march to the Democratic nomination was a near-certainty. "Is Hillary Clinton unstoppable?" teased CNN last summer.

* Rudy Giuliani was the man to beat for the Republican nomination, despite his anything-but-conservative positions on a range of social issues. Giuliani eventually quit the race with fewer votes and delegates than Ron Paul, who was all but dismissed by the media.

* Mike Huckabee, ignored by most reporters during the first half of 2007, supposedly didn't have the ground organization to pull off a victory in the Republican primary in Iowa. He won in the Hawkeye State.

* Barack Obama's candidacy was stagnating last fall because his message of hope and unity was too bland. "At a time when Obama needs to be winning voters away from Clinton, instead he's been playing defense," said the Associated Press in late October.

* Clinton, five days after losing to Obama in Iowa, was headed for certain defeat in the New Hampshire primary, an outcome all but sealed by her momentary display of emotion at a campaign stop a day before the vote. "She's So Yesterday," headlined the Boston Herald at one point. Clinton won in New Hampshire.

* Obama's endorsement by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy rated blowout coverage and pronouncements of a new Camelot. "Yesterday, the ideals of one of the nation's most beloved presidents were handed down for a new generation," rhapsodized the Washington Post. Except Clinton went on to win Massachusetts, the Kennedy family's home state, by 15 percentage points.

* In the lead-up to Super Tuesday, the Republican contest was a two-man race between McCain and Mitt Romney. Huckabee won five states and claimed almost as many delegates as Romney, who dropped out of the race.

* Clinton was again headed for a crushing defeat on Super Tuesday, the day the Democratic race was supposed to be finally settled (neither happened). Then, when Obama won 11 contests in a row after Super Tuesday, the new storyline was that Clinton was facing her last stand in the March 4 primaries and caucus in Ohio and Texas. Instead, she won the popular vote in both states and enough delegates to fight on.

And it's still only primary season.

As shabby as this record has been, it's perhaps more remarkable how little remorse and reflection it has inspired. In one of the few journalistic mea culpas after the New Hampshire debacle, the top editors of the Politico, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, wrote, "If journalists were candidates, there would be insurmountable pressure for us to leave the race. If the court of public opinion were a real court, the best a defense lawyer could do is plea bargain out of a charge that reporters are frauds in exchange for a signed confession that reporters are fools."

Which raises some basic questions: Why have so many been so wrong so often during this campaign? Why the urge to predict and prognosticate the course of events rather than simply describe them? And what, if anything, should anyone do about it?

In theory, at least, coverage of this year's presidential campaign figured to be the most extensive and exhaustive ever. …

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