Hyping the Horse Race

Via Jonathan Bernstein, I ran across an interesting piece on a familar topic, penned by Erika Fry for the Columbia Journalism Review, about the tendency of political journalists not only to cover the presidential campaign like a horse race, but to actively cheer-lead for a protracted contest. Fry quotes several journalists and TV producers who come right out and admit they have a bias in favor of the slim chances of underdogs, much as sports journalists do when they are trying to build fan interest in a lopsided event.

The big question is whether this bias contributes to the very horse-race phenomenon it promotes, and the answer is that it does, of course, which is particularly ironic when the particular beneficiary is a candidate like Newt Gingrich who is campaigning against the evil influence of the news media.

I have to admit I am hardly immune to the temptation. I write a regular column for The New Republic entitled “The Permanent Campaign,” and am fully aware that once Mitt Romney nails down the GOP presidential nomination I’ll have to work a lot harder to provide analysis of down-ballot contests, with occasional notes on the presidential race that will accelerate later in the year. But horse-race enthusiasts are not the only poltical journalists with corrosive biases: others, particularly in Beltwayland, are smug purveyors of various Iron Laws of politics in which electoral outcomes are dictated by “insiders”–i.e., their sources–months or years in advance. So sometimes campaign coverage seems to be divided between those who breathlessly over-react to every twist and turn in polling numbers, and those who think none of it’s worth covering at all. Indeed, you sometimes see both tendencies in the same publication, as Fry notes wryly of Politico:

Politico, typically, covers every angle here: a media piece noting the press’s need for drama, a straight news piece that hammers home Romney’s inevitable win, and an analysis piece that argues that the next month is “uncharted territory” and “conservatives are still resisting Romney.” Even Mitt Romney’s inevitability, it seems, flip-flops.

Perhaps these biases effectively cancel each other out, enabling voters and elites (in degrees varying on your point of view) to work their will on the electoral process. But the one thing that should be clear is that the authoritative voice with which pundits so often declaim on political developments is usually a thin disguise for today’s guess and tomorrow’s false prediction.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.