Let Them Play the Games: The Media's New Hampshire Fiasco Reflects a Broken Model for Campaign Coverage

By Rieder, Rem | American Journalism Review, February-March 2008 | Go to article overview

Let Them Play the Games: The Media's New Hampshire Fiasco Reflects a Broken Model for Campaign Coverage


Rieder, Rem, American Journalism Review


It's a shame the Betty Ford Center isn't bigger. Because the idea of shipping the entire national news media out there for some serious therapy is very attractive.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Well, maybe not the entire media. Just every news organization and every journalist with any connection to presidential campaign coverage.

The media's addiction to polls and to predicting the future is obviously not new. Critics have railed against it for years. The compulsion to be ahead of the game even caused the television networks to make the wrong call on the 2000 presidential election (see "How They Blew It," January/February 2001).

You'd think that humiliation was so huge that it would serve as a cautionary whale (hat tip to "Juno" for that great line) as well as a cautionary tale for the political punditocracy. But no.

The media's New Hampshire fiasco was more, much more, than yet another major embarrassment. It was a plea of nolo contendere. In the starkest of terms, the premature Obama coronation and Clinton obituary showed all too clearly that the current political coverage model is utterly broken.

The poll mania, of course, is just the starting point. It fuels the constant need to be out front, to foretell the outcome, to be completely inside. It's not just horse-race coverage. It's picking the winning horse well before the starting gun is fired.

The determination to advance the story, to break new ground, is basically a healthy one. It's an impulse that has led to a lot of terrific journalism. The problem is confusing polling data with facts. Polls are, as they say, a snapshot of opinion at a particular moment, not an ironclad predictor of how people will behave or what will happen.

While often reliable guideposts as to what's likely to happen, they are not absolute truth. This is particularly the case when dealing with volatile political primaries. As you may have noticed.

What happens now is that poll results and insider speculation combine to create conventional wisdom, or better yet, "wisdom." This wisdom is accepted as gospel.

Let's see, there was the long-running absolute certainty that Hillary Clinton had locked up the Democratic nomination. She had that big early lead in, yes, the polls. Her campaign was an error-free juggernaut. It almost seemed as if the contest should be halted like a one-sided boxing match. Stop the bleeding, declare it a TKO and save all the money and energy that would be frittered away letting actual voters get involved.

Then came the Iowa caucuses. …

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