Media

Press No Longer Qualified To Help Us Pick a President

Apparently reporters now think it's OK to mobilize themselves and actively oppose a presidential campaign.
The dismal truth about New Hampshire was this: Never has a Granite State primary received so much media attention and been covered by so many journalists. And never has the press so badly botched a New Hampshire vote.

Recall that one of the apparent turning points in the New Hampshire primary came during the January 5 ABC News-Facebook debate, broadcast by ABC News, when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) launched a passionate soliloquy about her accomplishments and her desire to "make change" after an opponent tagged her as being "status quo." Her forceful response created an immediate buzz in the debate's press room.

And for good reason. Election observers often love these kinds of unscripted outbursts since they not only break up the campaign trail monotony, where tightly controlled messages are the norm, but they can sometimes define a candidate and a race. It was Ronald Reagan's famous New Hampshire debate eruption back in 1980 -- "I am paying for this microphone!" -- that established him as a fighter.

Not so for Clinton. At least not among the press corps, which immediately pounced. Time's Karen Tumulty claimed Clinton's "flash of anger" had reporters "gasping in shock." Time.com's political blog, Swampland, quickly posted an item about how Clinton's debate response might be the moment observers looked back and pinpointed when Clinton "lost" New Hampshire and the nomination. ABC News' Jake Tapper claimed Clinton became so enraged onstage that he couldn't even "understand what she was saying," and either way, it was likely to "recoil" voters. NBC's Chuck Todd announced that the exchange was "not good" for Clinton. The New York Observer asserted that Clinton was "almost screaming." (She was not.) And after watching the debate, The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach suggested that Clinton's campaign needed to fit the former first lady with an electric shock collar that could zap her when she went astray -- when she became "screechy" -- like a dog being trained on an invisible fence.

It was quite amazing: A roomful of mainstream journalists, representing a host of different backgrounds, ages, and perspectives, all watched the debate and they all came to the exact same conclusion about Clinton's signature response: She blew it big time.

What was also telling was that none of those pronouncements were based on what voters in New Hampshire thought of the debate, or of Clinton's response. They were based solely on what journalists thought of the debate. And they hated Clinton's show of passion.

It turns out ABC News had assembled a focus group of voters to watch the debate and, according to Time, "hooked up voters with electrodes to monitor their brain activity. [Clinton's] flash of anger when the boys ganged up played well with all of them." But again, what did Jake Tapper do? Without checking in with any New Hampshire citizens, he immediately posted an item, which was then linked on the Drudge Report, that announced that Clinton's anger would likely cause voters to "recoil."

In today's campaign coverage, what journalists think about unfolding events takes precedence over what voters think. Voters have become essentially secondary, props in the background that are occasionally queried for a color quote. And that's a big reason why the press missed the New Hampshire story -- that, and the fact that the press was so anxious to write Clinton off as "toast."

It's true that most of the polling data failed to predict Clinton's strong showing in New Hampshire, which also explains why the press corps was caught so off-guard. But the fact remains that there appears to have been a massive voter shift within the New Hampshire electorate in the 72 hours before the vote, a massive shift that nobody in the media detected.

As Media Matters for America's Eric Alterman noted last week, virtually all the corporate press does these days is shallow, polling-based horserace coverage, and now it can't even get that right.

I agree that, normally, the statewide shift that took place in the Granite State might be difficult for journalists to detect. But this was New Hampshire, and a) it isn't that large, or populous, of a state; and b) it was crawling with journalists.

I mean, isn't that why an army of reporters, pundits, and producers numbering in the thousands descended upon New Hampshire, to put their ears to the ground and canvass the state like no other? To get an X-ray-like read on the voters and their concerns? Or did journalists simply descend upon New Hampshire to follow candidates around in a herd while complaining about a lack of access, to read the same polling results they could have read in Washington, D.C., or New York City, and to cling to the same Beltway narrative about the unfolding election?

Where was the journalism? After watching the New Hampshire returns come in, Butch Ward at Poynter Online, a journalism think tank, wrote:
I was struck by how little anyone told me about why people in New Hampshire voted as they did. At one point, I heard the briefest of snippets on one channel that exit polls showed New Hampshire voters had been most concerned with the economy. ... But no one was telling me why. Why? With all of this polling power, why couldn't someone tell me why? After almost a year of nonstop coverage, why can't someone tell me what the most important players in this election -- the voters -- are thinking?
Yet even after the New Hampshire press debacle, editors at the Politico, the Beltway house organ for conventional wisdom, insisted: "Things are not all bad. Politico is part of a broad, technology-inspired movement that has led to more open and more exhaustive coverage of this presidential race than ever before."

The only thing the Politico has covered exhaustively is meaningless tactical campaign nonsense. To read the Politico is to understand that its writers and editors are practically allergic to actual voters. But that's today's media norm.

Here's a perfect example: When Clinton arrived to campaign in New Hampshire following her Iowa loss, she made an obvious tactical adjustment and began engaging with voters more directly, sometimes hours at a time during marathon Q&A sessions. The press dutifully noted the change and then promptly ridiculed it. At washingtonpost.com, Dana Milbank narrated a video piece that thoroughly mocked a New Hampshire rally Clinton hosted, in which she answered questions for hours, declaring the Clinton candidacy effectively over. (The video came complete with a wildly unflattering photo of Clinton.)

Not one voter was interviewed in the three-minute-long video. Instead, it was the journalist who declared Clinton's performance to be a "torpid" "bore." Turns out, voters, based on the final New Hampshire tally, had a very different take on things. Had Milbank bothered to interview some actual voters, maybe he could have saved himself the embarrassment of so badly misreading New Hampshire. (I suppose the word "embarrassment" only applies if Milbank actually cares he was so wrong. I have my doubts.)

Meanwhile, ABC's World News last week described a detailed answer Clinton gave to a voter regarding real estate insurance as "tedious." And according to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, while listening to one of Clinton's issue-driven New Hampshire stump speeches, "a colleague in the press section leaned over to dismiss her for offering nothing but 'a laundry list of wonkery.' "

Note the press' catty performance during this January 5 Clinton campaign event, where the candidate met with undecided young voters and, according to The New York Observer, answered questions in eight-minute intervals:
Reporters sandwiched together in the scrum studied their BlackBerrys and rolled their eyes. One whispered to another sarcastically, "Can you feel the excitement?" Another asked: "Can you please pour some Drano in my mouth?" They began taking bets on who in the audience would fall asleep first. Former CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer said to the rest of the pack: "This event is taking so long we could all grow beards by the end of it."
We know now that as Clinton connected with undecided voters over kitchen-table issues, the critical New Hampshire vote was literally changing right in front of campaign reporters. But they were too busy deriding Clinton -- cracking jokes about drinking Drano -- that they failed to notice the shifting political landscape.

One of the few examples of temperature-taking among voters that I came across last week was posted by Tumulty at Swampland on the day of the primary; after she talked to a waitress named Katie, who, after watching the New Hampshire debate, switched her vote over to Clinton because "she stands her ground."

Perhaps more old-fashioned interaction with voters would have clued the press into the outcome.

Should we be surprised by the media's incompetence? This is, after all, the same modern-day press corps that is still writing about John Edwards' haircut, and during the autumn months, thought Hillary Clinton's laugh was an issue of monumental importance. Perhaps it was not unexpected that when it came time to cover an actual primary vote, the press corps seemed woefully unprepared.

The press has literally forgotten how to do its job, forgotten how to simply be spectators instead of trying to insert themselves as players. As Tom Brokaw famously mentioned on MSNBC on primary night, (arrogant) journalists need to remove themselves from the process and stop trying to affect the outcome. Elections are about voters, not journalists.

Meanwhile, what was mostly overlooked among the media chattering class as it went through the motions of post-New Hampshire faux hand-wringing was that the press was wearing blinders that kept journalists from accurately capturing the temperature in New Hampshire.

Looking back on the New Hampshire debacle, Matt Bai conceded on The New York Times' political blog, The Caucus, "In retrospect, we should have guessed then that the ground was shifting in New Hampshire."

Y'think? Bai blames the media's blindness on an obsession with polling. The truth is the press didn't want to acknowledge the ground was shifting because it liked the erroneous storyline that the Clinton campaign was imploding. (Paging Matt Drudge.) The press was practically celebrating it on the eve of the New Hampshire vote. That's a result of the open contempt many journalists express for Clinton and her campaign. It was that same contempt that produced at-times overtly sexist coverage of the candidate, "a nearly pornographic investment in Clinton's demise" by male pundits, wrote Salon.com's Rebecca Traister.

The disdain for Clinton has been openly broadcast by journalists. Appearing on CNN's Reliable Sources on December 30, The Washington Post's Milbank announced: "The press will savage [Clinton] no matter what."

And just hours before primary day, The New Republic's Jason Zengerle filed this dispatch from the campaign trail:
I was at a dinner tonight with various political reporters who are up here to cover the happenings, and it was pretty funny how giddy/relieved they were at the prospect of a McCain-Obama general election campaign, as opposed to, say, a Romney-Clinton one. Suddenly, the next 11 months of their lives look a whole lot more enjoyable.
That's right, on the eve of the New Hampshire vote, there were mainstream journalists announcing that the press would "savage" Clinton no matter what she did, as well as acknowledging that "giddy" reporters were gathered around dinner tables toasting the demise of her candidacy.

That's how you would expect Clinton's political opponents to react to the news of her faltering campaign. Since when do journalists -- reporters -- think it's OK to mobilize themselves and actively oppose a presidential campaign?

Another dismal truth from New Hampshire: The press is no longer up to the task of helping us pick our next president.