The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, April 06, 2004
 

Horse race beats out issues: a plausible reason


The dreadful obsession with the horse-race in coverage of the presidential campaign is one of those things that the bien pensant chatterati can clink chardonnay on.

In an interview plugging his book, Paul Waldman recalls that
Many years ago, I had a conversation with a White House correspondent for a major newspaper, and I asked her about this question of covering the strategy and not covering the policy details. And she said, "Look, I'm not an expert on welfare policy. I'm not an expert on foreign policy. What I'm an expert on is politics, and that's what I'm going to write about."

The problem is that the politics is rather critically dependent - on policy details.

The top papers will have correspondents who are (to one extent or other) experts in a particular field, who can work with the Just the politics, ma'am hacks: WaPo's Dana Priest, for example - whose specialism is national security - often shares a byline with political reporters.

But there must be a limit to the method: not enough subject specialists to go round, some subjects not covered by specialists at all, some specialists not being special enough.

A lack of expertise in policy on the media side naturally leaves hacks in need of assistance: and - count on it! - there will be no shortage of guidance from USG, gently taking the journo's arm and walking him through the salient features of the problem and extraordinary merits of the solutions proposed.

All on background, natch!

Now, objective journalism oblige, there will have to be some contribution from those opposing views. Towards the end of the article, possibly in the inside jump (as discussed on March 11), possibly cut altogether [2].

But, because the political journo does not understand the issues, we're left with he said, she said or duelling quotes. The reader is, of course, in a vastly worse position than, say, WaPo to evaluate the merits.

He needs to turn to other sources: in foreign policy, the likes of Brookings or the CSIS, say. And, having declined to help us itself, do the likes of WaPo point us to relevant reports from such bodies?

Don't make me laugh...

  1. Another trick of the journalistic trade: As I mentioned on March 11, news stories are constructed in the inverted pyramid format, with the four Ws - why is usually missing - covered at the top, together with the most important statements (that means starting with Bush, and working down the order of precedence).

    One reason is that, in cutting for space, the copy-editor can work mechanically, from the bottom up. Knowing that, by doing so, he will not cut any fact more important that any he leaves in.

    There is therefore an in-built, structural bias in favour of the official version, and against context or balancing versions.

    How this is reconciled against the mantra of objectivity, I know not. Not yet, at least.



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