COMMENTS: It is Survivor not Seabiscuit

UPDATE: a revised version of this post was published on Huffington Post on April 1st, 2008.

Last week in New Hampshire Democratic primary voters confounded the pundits and prognosticators. A consensus of opinion polls had projected Barack Obama as the election's winner by 8% and insider political journalists turned projection into prediction. "We in the media will beat ourselves bloody, and deservedly so, for reaching conclusions before the voters have spoken," confessed NBC anchor Brian Williams. Hillary Rodham Clinton became the 3% victor instead.

The style of journalism that valorizes the ability to forecast the future over accuracy at reporting what has already happened is nicknamed Horse Race. True to its sporting roots, its central mission is to identify winners and losers--who is ahead, who is behind and who has a late surge. On the racing page of a newspaper, past form is of interest only in as far as it can offer an insider's insight into future performance. Just so, the political reporter values the skinny, the hot tip, from pollsters, spinmeisters, consultants and strategists. Jay Rosen (text link) at PressThink calls this the Gang of 500's "cult of savviness."

It is so odd that the metaphor in common usage for insider political journalism should belong to a sport whose popularity peaked in the middle of the last century. I mean! Who visits the $2 window at Aqueduct any more? Now, it seems, Horse Race journalism has become as passe as the sport itself.

For Campaign 2008 a new genre of political reporting has been invented: Reality Gameshow journalism. It is a genre that fits the Democratic race just fine but does no favors for the Republicans.

Stop thinking of this election as a race to the wire to be won by the candidate with the finest pedigree, truest form and best connections.

Start thinking of it as a cast of larger-than-life characters, scheming against each other while simultaneously trying to appear attractive to the electorate audience. Week by week the group undergoes media trials such as candidate debates and Sunday morning interviews. Each primary election constitutes another potential elimination round. The winner gets to be a constant television presence in our homes for four years.

The Reality Gameshow style of journalism accounts for the emphasis on the personal interactions between the candidates, their demographic differences and their presentational stylings. Thus NBC anchor Brian Williams filed a profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton behind-the-scenes after Tuesday's debate in Nevada. He reported that her headline difference with Barack Obama had been her intention "to run the government" contrasted with his disinclination to play the bureaucrat: "Being President is not making sure that schedules are being run properly."

Williams asked Rodham Clinton about that soundbite in the New Hampshire diner where she had come close to tears, her so-called "moment of grace." "You know, Brian, I try to live in the moment in these campaigns," she reflected. She claimed her campaign truly began at the debate in New Hampshire--the one in which she confessed to hurt feelings because she was not well liked. "You are likable enough Hillary," was Obama's half-hearted reassurance. "You know, as a woman, I may have gone a little overboard in the beginning of this campaign to really make my case to be Commander-in-Chief."

These quotes are the reflections of a personality in a reality competition not the issue priorities of a policy wonk.

Williams' rival anchors have been yet more explicit in their focus on the personalities of the major contenders. On ABC, Charles Gibson filed his Who Is? series last fall, up close and personal profiles of the background, family, upbringing and life-forming experiences of each candidate. On CBS, Katie Couric produced her Primary Questions series, asking the same array of ten topics to each candidate and then editing the answers to each question in montage form. Couric resumed her series in this evening's newscast, seeking reminiscences on advice snafus--Rodham Clinton bemoaned bad hair days and fashion faux pas, Obama steered his kid sister wrong, Mitt Romney is a poor matchmaker. Couric herself reminded us that the series was "designed to help you get a better idea of who they are."

Couric is a leading proponent of this style of political journalism. Before she launched her Primary Questions series she reported approvingly on campaign consultant Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, and his theory that it is honesty and authenticity, not policies and programs, that voters are searching for in their candidates. Another leading light is Chris Matthews, anchor of MSNBC's Hardball. Matthews argued in his book Life is a Campaign that social dynamics and interpersonal appeals are the key ingredients for political success.

Just as they happen to be on a gameshow.

"And some people think elections are a game. They think it is like who is up or who is down. It is about our country. It is about our kids' futures. And it is really about all of us together." When Rodham Clinton said that, near tears, in that Portsmouth diner, she got the "game" part just right. The "who is up or who is down" was so horse-race yesterday.

Jeff Jarvis (text link) at BuzzMachine points out the extent to which the horse race model has been superseded for Campaign 2008, not just in political journalism but in the online culture. The opinion polls that got the Democratic result in New Hampshire wrong measure support. Jarvis proposes instead measuring the viral activity around each candidate, the curiosity, motivation, enthusiasm, controversy they inspire. How many friends do candidates have on Facebook? Are their videos seen on YouTube? Are people searching their names on Google? Are gamblers risking money on them in the futures market?

Jarvis' metrics may not help a Beltway insider predict the November result. But they may offer insight for journalists following the Reality Gameshow method about where the buzz is--what aspects of the campaign strike chords with the popular culture.

In Campaign 2008, Reality Gameshow journalism turns out to be no disservice to the remaining trio of Democratic contenders. There are few fissures in the Democratic Party's coalition and the main points of disagreement between the three are on stylistic, not ideological, grounds, each arguing in favor of his personal approach to the job of the Presidency--a pugnacious John Edwards, a diligent Hillary Rodham Clinton, an inspirational Barack Obama. So reporting on them as personalities, with their distinctive sociological and demographic backgrounds, is apt.

The same does not apply to the Republicans in this year's contests. True, even the casting director of Survivor could not have come up with personalities as sharply delineated as those of John McCain and Mike Huckabee, Rudolph Giuliani and Ron Paul, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney. But the Republican primary season turns out to be a serious contest over the future of its coalition, its issue priorities and the relative strength of its voting blocs. Treating it as a Reality Gameshow is not informative.


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