Focus on tactics over substance takes all the meaning out of politics

Horse race
(Photo by Paul Kehrer/Flickr)

Taking sides is the ultimate sin for political reporters at our most elite news organizations. You don’t make it to the top if you appear too opinionated.

That’s why “who’s winning?” and “how are the optics?” are vastly preferable questions for most political journalists to raise — and answer — than “who’s right?” and “is that a good idea?”

That produces a lot of what’s commonly called horse-race journalism: covering politics like a game, focusing on who’s up, who’s down, on strategy, polls, and finances — and not on substance.

Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu), a journalism professor and outspoken media critic at New York University, has been analyzing horse-race coverage for years.  “One of the great attractions to horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment,” he wrote in a 2011 essay:

Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because ‘who’s gonna win?’ is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists.

The horse-race model has other attractions as well, as Rosen tweeted in 2018: “It’s repeatable in every election, everywhere. It creates suspense and thus interest. It tells you where to put your resources (on the closest races and the candidates getting traction.)”

Harvard Professor Thomas Patterson, writing for the Shorenstein Center, concluded that “the plot-like nature of the competitive game” makes it irresistible to reporters covering the campaign:

Whereas policy issues lack the day-to-day novelty that journalists seek, the game is always moving as candidates adjust to the dynamics of the race and their position in it. Since it can be assumed that candidates are driven by a desire to win, their actions can be interpreted as an effort to acquire votes. The game is a perpetually reliable source of fresh material.

Although this approach pre-dates the rise of Politico, critic Michael Massing is still right to call it the “Politico effect”:

Since its launch more than 10 years ago, Politico has popularized a style of reporting that is… rapid-fire, fine-grained, gossip-filled, obsessed with who’s winning, and consumed by palace intrigues.

But there is widespread agreement – even in media circles – that horse-race journalism is bad for the country, primarily because it results in an electorate that is fundamentally uninformed about what’s really at stake. (Politico media writer Jack Schafer is a rare dissenter.)

I think this observation by Rosen is critical:

A very weird thing about horse race or “game” coverage is that it doesn’t answer to any identifiable need of the voter. Should I vote for the candidate with the best strategy for capturing my vote? Do I walk into the voting booth clutching a list of who’s ahead in the polls?

“It’s time for the game frame to die,” Dannagal Young (@dannagal), a University of Delaware professor, wrote for NiemanLab in 2017. Young, whose forthcoming book is titled “Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States,” wrote that the dynamic itself is not new.

What is new, perhaps, is the extent to which politicians, interest groups, and political parties are actively capitalizing on the game frame that they know dominates how news stories will be told. In a deliberate attempt to activate tribal identities and mobilize their bases (and to keep details of domestic and foreign policy in the shadows), political leaders — President Trump chief among them — work to inject news coverage with “us versus them” signals to guarantee the story will be told their way.

Put simply, journalists’ reliance on this practice is allowing elites to further divide the country, avoid scrutiny, and distract citizens away from thoughtful policy debate on issues that carry real-life consequences.

It Could Get Worse

Looking ahead to the 2020 campaign, horse-race coverage could have a particularly noxious effect. Looking at who’s winning or losing could distract from the enormous stakes. And scholars have found that when the news is not about substance, women suffer. Meredith Conroy (@sidney_b), an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, wrote in 2015:

An overemphasis on personality and appearance is detrimental to women, as it further delegitimizes their place in the political realm, more so than for men, whose negative traits are still often masculine and thus still relevant to politics.”

Furthermore, Conroy wrote: “If the election coverage neglects the issues, women may miss out on the opportunity to assuage fears about their perceived incompetency.”

Horse-race coverage values “electability” over capacity. And in the 2020 election cycle, reporters appear to be making “electability” synonymous to “likability.”

Claire Bond Potter (@TenuredRadical), a professor of history at the New School, published an opinion piece in the New York Times in May headlined: “Men Invented ‘Likability.’ Guess Who Benefits.” She wrote:

It is nebulous, arbitrary and meaningless, yet inescapable — and female politicians seem to be particularly burdened with it even when they win and especially when they run for president.

Tactical Framing

Horse-race journalism is also sometimes referred to as “game schema,” the “strategy frame,” or “tactical framing”. Carlos Maza (@gaywonk), who covers the media for Vox, put forth a particularly sophisticated and approachable analysis of tactical framing in a video in March that quite appropriately blew up on social media. It’s worth watching in full:

Maza used coverage of the “Green New Deal” as an example.

“Goddamit,” he said. “I have watched hours of segments about the Green New Deal, and none of them actually explain how it might work. Instead they focus on the politics: Is it going to pass? Does Pelosi like it? What did Trump tweet about it? Everything except: Is it a good idea?”

This is “called tactical framing, and it’s making us all too cynical to solve big problems before it’s too late,” Maza explained.

And it’s not just that tactical framing emphasizes strategy over substance, it’s that it views every issue in two simplistic dimensions: Democrats vs. Republicans. “It’s covered through a partisan lens, so we react to it through a partisan lens, which makes partisanship the only thing that matter,” Maza said.

Maza concludes that tactical framing is a fundamentally nihilistic, know-nothing approach to covering politics:

If we set up a coverage structure that minimizes the likelihood that the public will actually understand enough about the substance to register informed opinion, we minimize the likelihood that it will pass at all.

The extent to which tactical framing is at work in the day-to-day coverage of our leading media institutions is frightening. Consider how political reporters wrote about something as manifestly offensive, outrageous, inappropriate and hateful as Donald Trump’s racist tweets about four Democratic congresswomen in July: They focused on how it would play out politically.

Steve Peoples and Zeke Miller wrote for the Associated Press: “President Donald Trump has placed racial animus at the center of his reelection campaign, and even some of his critics believe it could deliver him a second term.”

Jeremy W. Peters, Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman wrote in the New York Times: “With three days of attacks on four liberal, minority first-term congresswomen, President Trump and the Republicans have sent the clearest signal yet that their approach to 2020 will be a racially divisive reprise of the strategy that helped Mr. Trump narrowly capture the White House in 2016.”

As Washington Post opinion columnist E.J. Dionne wrote:

It can make you heartsick for our country that the discussion of Trump’s genuinely vile comments about four congresswomen of color moved so quickly from outrage to detached analysis about what the divider in chief was trying to accomplish politically. Trump doesn’t even have to manipulate the public conversation anymore. He knows the GOP’s spineless congressional cheering squad will always fall into line and that dissenters will be isolated. Mainstream journalism is more willing to call him out than it used to be but eventually feels obligated to take whatever he says for granted as another exciting episode in the drama he orchestrates.

And consider the irony. If you believe the anonymous sources cited by Reid J. Epstein and Maggie Haberman, just a couple weeks after Haberman’s strategic analysis of Trump’s racist outburts, strategy has nothing to do with it! It’s all “impulse and personal grievance, which are further stoked by the president’s favorite television network, Fox News.”

Lessons Not Learned

In a letter to New York Times editor Dean Baquet, the Joe Biden presidential campaign’s communications director complained about “how little The New York Times has internalized the sobering lessons of 2016”:

Sadly, in recent years the Times has become a leading perpetrator of one of the most corrosive trends in modern journalism — “savvy” reporting that prizes the identification of disingenuous political tactics at the expense of focusing on the facts that voters need to know. This unfortunate tendency was visible in the days the scandal that has led Trump to the bring of impeachment broke, as the Times rehashed this hateful and disproven conspiracy theory as though it hadn’t been put to bed. Two of our staff members, when discussing the Trump news with a pair of Times reporters were … told that this piece wasn’t about the facts of what happened and instead had to do with trying to forecast how it might play in the Democratic primary.”

Biden was right about the Times, Osita Nwanevu (@OsitaNwanevu) wrote for the New Republic in mid-October:

Since the beginning of October, The New York Times has published eighty-three stories categorized on their website as “Election 2020” coverage as of Saturday morning. Eight of them have had the solutions offered by the candidates to address the problems facing the country as their main subject. Those articles have competed for space and clicks with speculation about quarterly fundraising totals and multiple pieces about the “questions” Bernie Sanders “will inevitably face” about his heart attack.

Every two years, post-mortems of campaign coverage zing news organizations for their addiction to horse-race coverage. And news executive frequently talk about how they intend to kick the habit.

Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan (@sulliview) wrote in January:

As the new year dawned, the top editor at the Associated Press — one of the most influential journalists in the country, though hers is not a household name — was making a resolution.

“We should all resolve to spend less time, or perhaps no time at all, on horse race polls that project forward to the 2020 presidential election,” Sally Buzbee said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

But good luck with that:

Buzbee herself said she doubted news organizations, including the AP, would heed her words.

As the presidential election season kicked off in earnest this month, it was obvious the media would do what it always has done: focus on personalities and electability; get distracted by gaffes and blow them way out of proportion.

Rosen feels the same way:

Absent some kind of creative intervention, 2020 campaign coverage looks like it will be the same as it ever was. Who’s ahead? What’s it gonna take to win? The debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach. The “savvy” style remains in place. Its practitioners are confident that they can prevail. They are probably right.

A Better Way

Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler), the editor in chief of Crooked Media, a political website founded by Obama and Clinton veterans, recently despaired of political journalists’ addiction to horse-race coverage over substance, and suggested an alternate set of questions that I think are way more legitimate and interesting:

A better question for journalists to explore… is whether various candidate agendas are responsive to real, identifiable human problems. Why are the candidates running on the ideas they’re running on? Every presidential candidate develops a platform, and never once in the history of democracy has a candidate adopted a governing agenda entirely at random. Rather, candidates adopt their proposals in response to a variety of pressures, including from donors, constituents, and their own perceptions of what’s politically viable.

On the issue of health care, for instance, Beutler asked:

Why are most Democratic presidential candidates embracing a program of Medicare-based universal health care? Is it literally true that the current health-care system leaves tens of millions of people uninsured? Would those people lives be materially improved if America had a single-payer health-care system? Do those people hope a candidate who supports single payer wins the election? There are, of course, other stakeholders in the health-care debate, but they, too, are approachable humans, just like Trump supporters in rural diners. Do doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators want to insure the uninsured? What if it reduces their income-per-patient? Do the health care professionals in rural America think the Republican resistance to Medicaid expansion has been good for their communities? Where do the answers to those questions leave them, politically, with elections looming?

But as Beutler points out, this same model can be applied against a whole range of issues.

And if I were a political editor at a major newsroom, I would tell my reporters to stop covering the horse race and do something more interesting — like that — instead.


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