43 Comments

Tell a lie often and who decides that and look what you get!

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My undergraduate degree is in journalism and I distinctly remember the reporting of public affairs class where we were required for every single story to find a source who had a view opposite to the one held by the subject being interviewed. He said/he said is inculcated in the culture of American journalism from education to practice. Reform is necessary from classroom to newsroom.

(She pontificated.)

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In thinking about the spectator sport phenomena that much political journalism seems to have devolved into I've come to think that 'horse race' approach is inherently anti-democratic in several ways. First, I think that the constant focus on polls and opinions of pundits and operatives must create a feedback loop that influences people's perceptions, and hence voting decisions, about any given election (here a nod to Theodora30 who said this more concisely in an earlier comment). Second, although it may not immediately appear so because of the ubiquity of the internet, journalistic choices made by media create an type of intellectual zero sum game. If you are reporting on X (who's leading in the polls, e.g.), then you are not reporting on Y (what policies are being advocated for, or against). Horse race political reporting draws people's attention to the 'game' of elections while at the same time drawing people's attention away from the ideas that form policies.

I think both factors also play into a separate, but not exclusive, phenomena in reporting, which is the (increasing?) tendency to report what people say, and not what people do. This makes media susceptible to propaganda in that a dominant voice can become the focus of a lot of media attention, again to the exclusion of anything content-full. Additionally, this plays into empty rhetorical devices: the use of memes and catchwords/phrases that are never specifically defined or debated ('cancel culture', 'woke', 'CRT') become blunt instruments in public discourse that also tend to suppress the expression of ideas and thus real debate.

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This is so sadly true, and will be only more important to readers and editors alike as we move forward from the 2022 elections.

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I forwarded this to the publisher and executive editor of The New York Times with this note:

"You should send this to the people you have covering politics, although, for the life of me, I don't know why any of them still has a job."

I worked at a little bankrupt newspaper when I was a teenager--I actually wound up temporarily being its editor, believe it or not. But I was putting out a daily paper with virtually no staff. And I wouldn't hire any of the political "reporters" at The Times or The Post if they volunteered to work for nothing. I except the investigative and national security reporters--note that they do much better work.

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I strongly believe that decades-long “Democrats in Disarray” storyline is very damaging to our democracy. The mainstream media portrays the disagreements, negotiations and compromises as deeply dysfunctional when they are actually how healthy democracies are supposed to function. Far too many in the media admire a leader who can get his party members to shut up and follow them like obedient servants because that is what they think strong, manly men do.

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Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

"Like!" :) Our local small town election was a perfect example of a typical American election day. While the shrill voices were on tv, our local conservative, small northern NH rural town had a party-like atmosphere. This is where everyone in the town, gop and dem, trumpster and biden supporters, see each other once every few years. trump supporters hung out with the Biden crowd just like the good neighbors they are. Everyone talked about the new town fire department project. The real, good, generous heart of America is identified perfectly in Our Towns, the great local renewal and hope nonprofit started by the Fallows'. Stories of friendly neighbors without rancor don't sell newspapers, so the profit motive does not reflect how we really are. Thanks for your always insightful comments, Theodora and everyone! Hope everyone has a great thanksgiving, now only 2 weeks away. Try the tofurky (tofu turkey), it is pretty good! LOL :)

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Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

"Like" reading all the comments! I hope that everyone feels comfortable to comment. It is part of the richness of this platform as opposed to other troublesome platforms. It is great to talk and exchange ideas here: reading the comments section is so much part of the fun! Thanks to all!

Happy November 10, now known as "we survived the election that was twisted by the maga gop" day. Now we can go back to our normal worrying about tv advertising and melting glaciers. How human we are.. how small in the endless universe

This subscription is the best investment, to be able to listen to one of the world's great journalists. Thanks JF! :)

Boston Magazine article, innocent times of 2012. One can only imagine how this giant would handle things now, it would be quite different. This man never stood down to anyone or anything, he charged right in, in defense of our democracy. We have many like this in our D party:

https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2012/12/09/quotable-tip-oneill/

Tip O’Neill, an icon of Massachusetts politics, would have been 100 Sunday. In Boston, we remember O’Neill, who represented Boston districts in the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years and served as Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987, as one of the most influential Democratic politicians to come out of Massachusetts.

O’Neill is credited for coining the famous observation that, “all politics is local.” Ultimately, O’Neill knew, voters care about how a politician’s decisions will affect them on a local day-to-day level, and a politician can’t take his constituents for granted.

To commemorate O’Neill’s 100th birthday, we have compiled some other lines from the quotable congressman that you may not be as familiar with:

“It’s easier to run for office than to run the office.”

Discussing the tension between campaigning and governing an office. O’Neill’s only electoral defeat was in his first race, when he ran for a seat on the Cambridge City Council while still a senior at Boston College. His senior class voted him “Class Politician.” After graduating in 1936, he won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

“You better take advantage of the good cigars. You don’t get much else in that job.”

Talking to Vice President Walter Mondale after he was elected. Although O’Neill’s greatest loyalty was to his constituents, he contributed to national issues, and was one of the earliest politicians to come out in opposition to the Vietnam War, breaking away from his party and the President at the time. Internationally, he worked for peace, including being a major force in the Northern Ireland peace process.

“The purpose of the present bill is to provide all Americans with a greater opportunity to visit and appreciate these monuments to our glorious beginnings. The people of the United States have always taken an intense and sincere interest in the preservation of their national heritage.”

Explaining his support for a bill that would build an historical park in Boston. O’Neill also introduced a bill that would preserve historical sites in Boston, such as Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill, Paul Revere’s house, and the Old North Church.

“I’ve known personally every president since Jack Kennedy and I can honestly say that Ronald Reagan was the worst. But, he’d have made a hell of a king.”

About his relationship with Reagan, who was president for much of the time that O’Neill was Speaker. O’Neill used to say that although they clashed during the day, they were great friends after 6 p.m., prompting Reagan to answer the phone with “Tip, is it after 6 p.m.?”

“A good lesson in keeping your perspective is: Take your job seriously but don’t take yourself seriously.”

Despite his dedication to his liberal Democratic ideology, he is remembered as a gifted politician who worked well with other politicians to accomplish goals. President George H. W. Bush awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 for his dedication to serving the public for 50 years, “while maintaining his humor, humility and touch with the people.”

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I have learned to almost stop reading or listening to political reporting, which so often displays opinions presented as facts.

Ohio's districts, deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court, still had to comply with one aspect of the constitutional amendment: not splitting cities. This allowed District 1, which includes Cincinnati, to elect Democrat Greg Landsman. It will be the first time this Democratic city in a majority Democratic county has had someone representing the majority since 2010.

In every other way, Ohio broke my heart (again) this election season. We'll keep working on making our districts more fairly represent our 54-R/46-D reality, despite the Republican super majority's heavy handed efforts to the contrary. (This American Life did a good broadcast on the travesty over redistricting in Ohio last weekend - it's worth a listen: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/784/mapmaker),

So rather than reporting on "Democrats in disarray," why don't we have more stories about the success of those running the Democratic party in places like Cincinnati and Hamilton County? I've been watching this unfold in real time over the past 10 years. It's happened because the party has focused on good civic governance and quality of life issues.

Let's talk about that more, please!

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Probability and prediction are not the same thing.

When the weather forecast says "there is a 90% probability of rain tomorrow,” that is a precise number, arrived at by mathematical formulas. It means that when we observed past weather patterns, 90% of the time when these conditions existed, it rained. If it doesn't rain the next day we say the forecast was wrong, but it was not. It was the result of a mathematical formula. 90% chance of rain means a 10% chance of no rain.

So what good is the forecast if it’s not a prediction? Simple - it helps inform our decision about whether to carry an umbrella.

While polling, too, is an exact science, it is still not a prediction. It only serves to inform our decisions – though a bit less precisely than determining weather patterns. The person who comes up with a mathematical formula to predict human behavior will alter the course of history!

But we like to think that we have now acquired the ability to predict the future. Instead of saying, “There is a 90% probability of rain tomorrow,” or, “85% of voters in our sample chose candidate G over candidate Z,” we prefer to say, “It will rain tomorrow,” or “G will win the election.”

How arrogant. With all this science and mathematics, we still have absolutely no idea what the future holds – only increasingly sophisticated methods for making an educated guess. As you say, we would do much better to focus our thoughts on what we can do today rather than what we think will occur tomorrow. We should probably watch fewer weather forecasts, and carry our umbrellas a bit more often.

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The blathering has become so tiring, the predictions so banal, the rhetoric from pundits and politicians alike is alarmist and harmful––I teach college freshmen and, with few exceptions (mostly veterans coming back to school), they do not want to talk politics (I'm sure the administration does want Professors to push that "envelope"). I'm pleased to report over half of my students (60 spread across three classes) did vote. Thanks for your "sane" view of how the major newspapers handled their coverage. Our state newspaper, the venerable Hartford Courant, chose not to endorse any candidates. Like so many others newspapers, they are withering away and it feels as if "there's no there there." Again, thank you!

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What really worries me is how all that blathering and doomsaying can affect voters. I can’t believe it doesn’t discourage some people from voting for Democrats. Why stand on line for hours when you are convinced Democrats are doomed anyway? Self-fufilling prophecies too often are realized. This year voters were so scared and angered by Republican extremism that Democratic turn out was really high but this was a very unusual year.

It also drives me nuts when reporters and pundits point out that inflation is a big issue for voters because voters don’t understand that Biden can’t really do that much about it. When it is obvious that voters don’t understand the issues and problems we face, journalists ought to immediately blame themselves for that politicians’ messaging. Journalists at major media outlets are the ones with the megaphone and they can and do drown out Democrats’ messaging, both with their counter messaging and by downplaying what the Democrats are saying. The NY Times and WaPo constantly harped on inflation often with articles implying it is the result of Biden’s spending.

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Thank you, I appreciate it. And good to hear about your students.

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Excellent piece Jim. For the first time in years, this election I paid almost no attention to process reporting on the national. This after several decades in politics, mostly national. I only focused on local and statewide, which was reassuring since here in Massachusetts the Republicans went full MAGA and got about 1/3 of statewide vote. Think locally.....

In any case, I was able to watch returns last night with fairly fresh eyes, and it seemed kind of like a normal election -- some good candidates, some I didn't much like, and a few who were simply awful (and mostly lost). I cannot bear anymore the way national politics has melded with sports -- the oddsmakers and my-team-right-or-wrong. I was embarrassed that I was forced to vote a straight D ticket here: the Massachusetts / Charlie Baker Republican Party got sucked into the MAGA miasma and lost resoundingly.

And, yes, the NY Times is one of the most egregious of the media in how they write about elections (and, yes, I read the Times every day for the reasons you mention). But I have been skipping the political "analyses", if only for the sake of my aging sanity.

Keep on writing Jim --- it is always a pleasure to read your breaths of fresh air....Randy Foote

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Thank you, Randy, I appreciate it!

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Even if voters were choosing based on inflation, gas prices, or...That's the least interesting bit. Why aren't reporters asking each candidate and pundit what--specifically--they propose to do about [fill in the blank]? The NYT recently ran a big spread analyzing and ranking all the NFL teams. Would that they put the same effort into revealing and analyzing the specific policies each party/candidate/"expert" wants to put into effect. Cable news could still devote, say, 20 hours each day to the endless speculative panels and still have plenty of time to inform voters in detail about what the candidates on the ballot want to do if they win.

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Bruce, yes, good point. As you suggest, one defect in the "political coverage = sports coverage" concept is that often sports is covered much more seriously than politics.

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Nov 9, 2022Liked by James Fallows

"There is so much to explore, learn about, and share in our world. Speculating about what’s going to happen in the next election is about the least useful insight to add." Amen. One of the hidden costs of all this fruitless speculation is that it takes time, talent and attention away from real reporting.

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Ever since 2000, it feels like major newspapers and TV news channels have treated elections as sporting contests, instead of odds lines we have polls. But just as the odds from Vegas aren't predictors of who will win a game, polls can't tell you what will happen. I've seen headlines that say for example "Walker ahead in Georgia" before a single vote has been tabulated. No Walker was not ahead, some poll, which may have been inaccurate, said he was leading by a tiny margin. This is irresponsible journalism because it gives the impression that poll responses are votes.

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Michael, thanks. (And, yes, the idea of the political press cadre treating public life as pro wrestling is one that's been increasing evident to you and David H and many others — but not to the ones doing the stories...)

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DId you see this article by Jennifer Rubin?

“The media need a serious overhaul of their election coverage”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/11/15/election-media-coverage-overhaul/

It hadn’t crossed my mind to wonder if the media would do the kind of soul-searching they did after being so wrong in 2016, probably because I just assume they won’t. I agree that is political journalists/pundits need to stop treating women as a special interest group or a minority and realize women represent the typical voter. I also agree with her that they need to start going places that average American women hang out — carpool lines, yoga classes, supermarkets, etc. I would add suburban Starbucks because that is where younger women frequently go, at least where I live.

I was furious after Hillary’s loss that the media had no interest in how frustrated, discouraged and heartbroken so many of women of all ages were. They were only focused on understanding the feelings of MAGA voters as if their votes are more important than women’s votes.

Rubin is also right that the media need to drop the false claim that Hispanics are deserting the Democratic Party, focusing on every dip in support not the truth that Hispanics are realiably Democratic voters.

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they did that long before 2000

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Sure but it was the protracted coverage of the five-week election debacle in 2000 that propelled elections into the spectator sport stratosphere.

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I can remember complaining about this sort of thing as early as the '70s.

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Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

Ok, I concede, you've been complaining longer than I have.

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Or, you know, political reporters could spend less time analyzing the horse race (since they're not too good, as you show, at figuring how it will turn out) and more time making clear what elections are about, including the consequences for voters. As I recall, that's been the unanimous advice of the journalism analysts I've read. But as you previously concluded, political reporting is so entrenched it's unlikely to do anything so obvious and helpful.

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Thanks. I go back and forth between saying "Please, please, you could do this differently!" and thinking "Sigh, if they were going to do it differently, they would already have done so."

It is striking that no one there (NYT) ever engages seriously or publicly with people questioning their political coverage. (And I say this having a zillion friends there.)

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Not only do they not engage they dig in. They have defended their coverage of the 2016 race and refuse to even consider how their coverage of Trump and the GOP is skewered. They are the epitome of “both sides” nonsense. I barely read the Times anymore (I have been a subscriber/daily buyer for forty years); but their election data collection (just the numbers please) is superb, which is why I still subscribe.

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Permit me to recommend Brad DeLong’s sub stack (https://braddelong.substack.com/p/a-lesson-on-how-i-should-read-the) in which addresses this issue using Benjamin Wallace-Wells recent pieces in the New Yorker to demonstrate the perils of what he calls access journalism and journalists neglecting to do their own number crunching and reporting at face value the statements of interested parties.

By the way, Mr.Fallows, footnote 4 was brutal! 👏🏻

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Thanks! Yes, agree about Brad DeL's excellent post.

I am glad that Substack offers footnotes!

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Curious, and probably a breach of DM privilege for being too chatty, but did you and he cross paths at Cal?

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