How the Media Missed the Biggest Political Surprise of the Year

As they did with the U.S. election and the Brexit vote, the majority of U.S. and British media got Thursday's British general election wrong for months on a massive scale. The conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic was that the Conservative Party was on route to a historic landslide victory over the “far-left,” “radical” Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn—who was, due to said far left-ness, a drag on the party:

Except, the opposite happened. Instead of losing the predicted 100-150 seats, Labour actually gained 32 seats, and instead of increasing its majority, the Conservative Party lost 13 seats and its majority in the House of Commons, forcing it into a potential coalition with the far-right Democratic Union Party. Both U.S. and British pundits were equal parts wrong and smug. Media Matters For America’s Eric Boehlert tweeted that "Corbyn’s been a disaster for Labour.” Center-left U.K. gatekeeper New Statesment lamented its "election prediction for Labour is dire." High-profile British pundit Nick Cohen insisted “Corbyn’s Labour won’t just lose. It’ll be slaughtered.” America's Zack Beauchamp of Vox held up Corbyn as exhibit A for why "left-wing populism" wasn't up to the task of taking on a resurrgent right-wing popuism.

These predictions were vaguely backed up by polls showing a major Labour loss, but here we’re stuck in a vicious cycle: sneering pundit leads to bad press leads to low polling which, in turn, leads to even more sneering pundits. A similar feature plagued U.S. progressive candidate Bernie Sanders, who was dismissed by the media as incapable of winning based largely on low poll numbers and bad showing in the betting markets, which themselves were a result of a media that constantly told voters he was incapable of winning.

This is seen starkly in how candidates are treated early on in the election process. According to one survey of nightly broadcast network news during the 2015 primary season, Sanders received a total of 20 minutes of coverage, compared to Clinton’s 121 and Trump’s 327. This, in addition, to Sanders losing what's called the "invisible" primary comprised of major party donors and establishment party leadership. Just the same, two separate studies showed that Corbyn received overwhelmingly negative coverage from across the political press—again, all before a single voter had a say in an actual election.

How exactly Corbyn overcame this deficit to shock the political world is for political scientists to sort out. (Vice’s Sam Kriss offers up the simple argument that it was, for lack of a better word, “hope.”) But one thing is clear: He did so in spite of the media and elite consensus that he was an unelectable “hard leftist” that solidified the second he won the Labour leadership in September 2015. 

The question facing good-faith editors, writers and producers now is how to break the sneering pundit/bad press/low polling cycle so they can, at the very least, stop being colossally wrong all the time. How to look beyond the groupthink and identify forces that exist outside newsrooms and blue checkmark Twitter. In the past few days, dozens of pundits and politicians who predicted Labour’s demise have had to eat crow (and, in once case, literally eat their own book.) In a moment of self awareness, long-time Corbyn-derider and Zack Beauchamp opined: “If these exits are right, I completely underestimated Corbyn's Labour. I'm going to need to think hard as to why.”

The reason is that too many pundits view themselves as simply objective observers recounting objective fact. After all, this is Vox Media and many other pundits’ whole pitch: We’re post-ideological wonks just calling balls and strikes. “Corbyn is a trainwreck” because polls say he is. Why they say so and will they say so after two months of campaigning is never really discussed much less explored. “Experts” agree. “Most economists” believe. It’s just the way it is.

Never do they reflect upon their own role in this cycle. When the deck is stacked so heavily in favor of the status quo, when the conventional wisdom of austerity politics and reasonable, sensible plans to raise tuition rates and bomb Syria, remaining “neutral” is to give in to the inertia of lowered expectations. It’s to pawn off the descriptive as the normative, the way things are with the way things ought to be. Populating our media with weathervanes who equate envisioning a world beyond the latest YouGov poll with Stalinism has rendered it uniquely inadequate for the times we live in—a fact that grows increasingly obvious with every set of blown predictions.


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