Media Punditry: The Beast Without a Brain

by on January 21, 2008 · 0 comments

in Election, Media

Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us

(This article is from Jan. 20th. Here is Tom Engelhardt’s intro:) Let’s see. They were wrong on Hillary Clinton, essentially nominating her for the presidency months before a primary was held. In Iowa, they were wrong on Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama, John Edwards and Clinton (again). In New Hampshire, wrong on Obama, Clinton (yet again), and — at least earlier in the campaign season — John McCain. In Michigan, wrong on McCain (again) and Mitt Romney. Just remind me, in this strange presidential nomination season in which each obscure primary is treated as if it were the night of the presidential election, when have they been right? …

By Jay Rosen

Just so you know, “the media” has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not “get behind” candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. Nor does it “buy” this line or “swallow” that one. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.

1. The Herd of Independent Minds

This does not mean you cannot blame the media for things. Go right ahead! Brainless beasts at large in public life can do plenty of damage; and later on — when people ask, “What happened here?” — it sometimes does make sense to say… the beast did this. It’s known as “the pack” in political journalism, but I prefer “the herd of independent minds” (from Harold Rosenberg, 1959) because I think it’s more descriptive of the dynamic. Mark Halperin of Time’s The Page (more about him later) calls the beast the Gang of 500. But gangs have leaders, which means a mind. That’s more than you can say about the media.

Now, the pack, lacking a brain, almost had a heart attack when Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, since they had told us Obama would run away with it because the pollsters told them the same thing. The near-heart attack wasn’t triggered by a bad prediction, which can happen to anyone, but rather by some spectacular wreckage in the reality-making machinery of political journalism. The top players had begun to report on the Obama wave of victories before there was any Obama wave of victories. The campaign narrative had gotten needlessly — one could say mindlessly — ahead of itself, as when stories about anticipated outcomes in the New Hampshire vote reverberated into campaigns said to be preparing for those outcomes even before New Hampshire voted.

“PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Key campaign officials may be replaced. She may start calling herself the underdog. Donors would receive pleas that it is do-or-die time. And her political strategy could begin mirroring that of Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican rival…”

That’s Patrick Healy in the New York Times the day of the New Hampshire primary, reporting on what would happen, according to nameless campaign insiders, if events about to unfold that day validated previous reports about what was likely to unfold that day. Healy’s best defense would be: Wait a minute, people with the Clinton campaign actually told me those things. They turned out to be premature and wrong. I didn’t make it up!

[for the remainder of this article, go here to]

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