Friday, June 15, 2007

They've Been Polled -- And We All Know How Painful That Is

Jay Rosen writes an amusing piece about the seemingly endless trumpeting of election polling data by the press which, he argues, substitutes for substantive reporting on issues. The "Master Narrative," Rosen says, tends to be about who is ahead today or this minute or in that state. This narrative drives the news, fuels the pack and deprives the voting public of red meat.
It's nice to know that Mitt Romney has pulled ahead in New Hampshire, seven months before the primary voting. Thanks, Bill Schneider! Let me ask you something: Who's ahead in addressing a broken health care system?

It’s fascinating to realize that Hillary Clinton, a woman, is ahead among women. Thanks, Washington Post. In the race to protect the people against terrorism and maintain a free and open society, would the Post know who’s ahead? Could it possibly find out and tell us, then check back in a month or so and tell us again?
There is a lot of polling and a lot of is dumped on the public, though I have always suspected that the private polling candidates do on their own behalf is the really valuable stuff. Bush 41's decision to buy a hunting license and fishing reel on after voting on election day 1992 -- telegraphing retirement rather than re-election -- was based on bad news from prescient private pollsters.

Data over Substance?

Political junkies eat these numbers up, of course, they way they do lots of raw material the public doesn't necessarily get served. But what's missing? Are reporters dropping the ball with the weightier stuff? I'm of two minds on the notion that the horse race is over-reported, at least at the de facto expense of more substantive reporting. Especially now, with endless sources of news, the truth is out there.

Part of the problem is that stats are deadly easy to report and (apart from any gaming by the pollster) hard to spin.
What we are lacking is not so much the re-articulation of the candidate's ideas but the skewering of their nonsense.
But tracking also often begs the follow-up question: why the heck is Mitt Romney ahead in NH? What's up with that? I remember more than one voter in 1992 New Hampshire thinking that Republican hopeful Pat Buchanan's stance on the first Gulf War was that Bush 41 ended it too soon by not marching into Iraq. That Buchanan was entirely against the war came as a complete surprise to these supporters.

Did confusion about even a well-articulated policy position pump up Buchanan's strong second-place finish at the polls? Did anybody ask as the tracking polls poured in? (Don't blame me. I parachuted in a couple of days before primary night.)

Ignore At Your Peril

I probably shouldn't say this too loudly, as a reporter, but as a voter I'm also not sure I want anyone telling me who's ahead in the idea race. Better debate formats would give me the "direct-to-consumer" fix I crave. Lengthier interviews, especially with what Rosen neatly describes as the "safely ignored" "candidates who cannot win," are done from time to time: he may be persona non grata to Sean Hannity but Ron Paul gets lots of camera time with Tucker Carlson, as does Dennis Kucinich. The Washington Post fronts that Paul is "Huge on the Web."

Why these two articulate and fearless position-takers don't get more traction in the polls is an intriguing question -- more about the public than the press, I think -- but it doesn't surprise me that the pack won't be interested in them unless they do, er, get better numbers in the polls. It'd be almost pimping otherwise.

What we are lacking is not so much the re-articulation of the candidate's ideas but the skewering of their nonsense. Sadly, this charge continues to be led by late night comedians, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher (in season) and once a week by Frank Rich. Forget about whether the presence of Katie Couric tarts up the CBS Evening News. When is Les Moonves going to hire Jon Stewart?

(With apologies to David Letterman for the headline)

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