Why the media got it wrong again
It has been close to a dream week for Joe Biden. The near universally forecast Republican red wave never materialised, Donald Trump-endorsed candidates had a terrible night (yet he will still probably launch his 2024 campaign next week), Russia said it was pulling its troops out of Kherson, which hands Ukraine a big symbolic victory, and US inflation came in lower than forecast, which eases pressure on the Fed to tighten. The stock market’s rally seemed a fitting coda to these windfalls, which reminded us — once again — that a week is a long time in politics. As it happens, Biden’s early Thanksgiving batch of good news was crammed into less than 72 hours. By the same token it was a ghastly few days for the US media, which badly misjudged the midterm election outcome. I do not mean to pick on CNN but this headline “Why the midterms are going to be great for Donald Trump” was not untypical.
Why did the media so badly misjudge things? Part of it is risk aversion. As they say about fund managers, it is safer to be wrong together than to risk being wrong alone. Another part of it is simple groupthink. Local media has been erased across America, which deprives us of the on-the-ground eyes and ears that can challenge conventional wisdom. Even worse, however, is the increasing big media tendency to substitute opinion polls and the predictions of data aggregators for real political reporting. As some dissonant voices pointed out in the final weeks of the campaign, aggregators such as RealClearPolitics and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight were flooded with junk polls from rightwing outfits such as Rasmussen and Trafalgar that distorted the polling average in favour of the red wave narrative. Since big city journalists, chiefly in Washington and New York, tend to talk to each other or read each other for half of the time, we should not be surprised when they are collectively wrong. This is not just a problem of domestic political coverage. Swampians will recall the jingoistic media consensus for war long after the shock of 9/11 had died down.
So what can be done about it? I turned to my friend, and now retired former colleague Jurek Martin, who first started covering US politics in the late 1960s. Jurek’s closest journalistic friend was the New York Times’ late and great Johnny Apple. “In the autumn of 1975, RW Apple, national political reporter for the NYT and a serious journalistic big foot, disappeared from the paper’s front page, which he pretty much owned,” writes Jurek. “He resurfaced six weeks later with an extraordinary piece of political journalism. He’d been on the road for that time, mostly but not exclusively in the south and border states, and wrote that a candidate for president, then registering 1-3 per cent in the national polls, was remarkably well organised wherever Apple went and, moreover, had a message that resonated with many of those Apple talked to. A year later, Jimmy Carter, the blip in the polls, was elected president.” Apple’s headline was “Jimmy who?”
Jurek continues. “I travelled a lot with Johnny over the years, and learned from him. We both believed that tying yourself to the steel cocoon that is a candidacy meant you couldn’t understand what people in the real America were thinking and that relying on polls to fill that gap was a fool’s game. Our preferred approach was to camp in a state, or a city, for a week or so and just talk to people. If a candidate passed through for a rally, you could pick him up and write a news story and then go back to the shoe leather stuff. It was the modus vivendi of all the good political journalists of that generation, Jack Nelson of the LA Times, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover of the Baltimore Sun etc. The very thought of spending much time pontificating (from polls) in a TV studio was anathema. But that was then . . . ”
There are plenty of brilliant journalists out there researching entrepreneurial topics working for a welter of new platforms and newsletters. Yet almost all seem to live in the big cities — mostly on the east coast. They should travel more. Martin Baron, former editor of the Washington Post, put up a large notice in the newsroom that said: “Go talk to people”, which is far more enjoyable than reading polls. Indeed, the more social technology pervades our lives, the higher the return to offline journalism. Rana, do you detect the same media weaknesses? If so, what is your solution?
It was also a good week for Florida’s Ron DeSantis. I recommend this piece from the NYT’s Frank Bruni which points out that DeSantis and Trump are more similar than we think — “megalomaniacs of a feather” as he puts it. Anyone who doubts that should watch this unironic DeSantis video about God creating a fighter “on the eighth day”, whose name is Ron DeSantis. Please watch it. Even if this week does turn out to be the beginning of the end for Trump, now is no time to exhale.
For some good shoe leather journalism, my colleague Andrew England has an intriguing Weekend FT piece about how “How the unlikeliest World Cup came to be [in Qatar]”. Even if you hate football/soccer, you will be hearing so much about the World Cup, you might as well get onside. Plus, the US is in the same qualifying group as England, Wales and Iran. How entertaining is that?
Swampians who missed mine and Rana’s midterm FT live event yesterday with James Politi and Norm Ornstein should watch it here.
Rana Foroohar responds
I detect this problem, 100 per cent. And I agree, it’s largely about the media not getting out and travelling away from the coasts (and in large part away from just NYC or DC). But I’d add that taking a two-day jaunt is one thing; really spending months or even years reporting, or living, outside the corridors of power is another.
I am so glad to have grown up in the Midwest, gone to a state K-12, and have plenty of childhood friends who voted for Trump because it gave me a felt experience that made me question everything from “efficient” markets to status quo trade policy to some of the knee jerk opinions of both the right and the left over the years. I’m a registered Democrat, but grew up with many thoughtful conservatives (not the MAGA types but the sort who tended to be farmers or run the local banks and were mostly about personal and fiscal responsibility), and carry many of their views with me. I also find myself increasingly alienated from the sort of sanctimonious liberals in my New York neighbourhood (I voted for Hochul for governor, but I understand why people in less secure neighbourhoods who worried about bail reform might not have; for a taste of how my neighbourhood sees the world, check out this piece). For personal and professional reasons, I spend a fair bit of my domestic travel time in the south, and in the west, which is where both population and power is shifting.
The echo chamber of the media isn’t just about tribalism, though. It’s about the rise of high speed information and the decline of the traditional news business model. When I started in this business as a cub reporter at Forbes in the early 1990s, it was not at all unusual to be given months to work on a feature, even if you were a junior member of the staff. The magazine was fat with ads to support all this, along with a 30-person pool of fact checkers, a 20-person statistical department that would happily crunch any numbers you needed to support your case, multiple Bloomberg terminals for all to use, and pretty much unlimited travel budgets. I remember once, as a 25-year-old reporter, having the executive editor of the magazine, Bill Baldwin, personally spend weeks going over a spreadsheet with me to help me better understand the particulars of a tax piece. When was the last time either of us, senior columnists, had months for anything? Even veterans are lucky to get days not just hours or minutes. And pity the poor junior hire, who has far too much work, and far too little support and training. Is it any wonder that this ultimately shows up in the quality and breadth of how the media looks at anything?
But this isn’t just the fault of the media. It’s also about echo chambers of all kinds. I remember being at a dinner during the primary season leading up to the 2016 elections, with a number of politicos and some Republican donors. Much of the conversation was about their certainty that Trump would be out of the race soon. But the Indiana primary was running on a TV behind us, and I had a sinking feeling that his time was far from up. I asked one of the donors what Republicans were offering the laid off factory workers and high school grads with no vocational training in my hometown, aside from trickle down economics? He didn’t have much of an answer. I suspect that everyone in the corridors of power, not just the media, should be getting out of their comfort zones much more often.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to “Political arms race ends in a coin flip”:
“One of the causes you neglect in your column is the way that our political orientation (eg progressive, traditional Democrat, traditional Republican, Maga or, if you prefer, “national conservative”) has become an overarching uber-identity. Today, the depressing fact is that for too many people, once you know their political identity, you can predict their position on a wide range of issues that are unrelated to each other . . . history has repeatedly shown the danger of having politics play this role.” — FT reader TC415