Is it the election or is it the recession? For the fourth weekday out of the last five, the nightly newscasts could not decide which to focus on. This weekend's Republican South Carolina primary was Story of the Day. Mitt Romney's victory yesterday in Michigan means there is no frontrunner in the GOP field, putting extra pressure on his main rivals, John McCain and Mike Huckabee, not to fail on Saturday. Yet none of the networks led with South Carolina. Each chose a different aspect of the economy instead. NBC selected the quest by money center banks for foreign capital. CBS looked at growing credit card delinquencies and increasing joblessness. ABC previewed the debate on Capitol Hill over a plan for fiscal stimulus.    
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video thumbnailCBS2008 South Carolina primary previewedGOP race shaken up, crucial for McCain, HuckabeeBill WhitakerSouth Carolina
video thumbnailNBC2008 Rudolph Giuliani campaignSkips early contests, relies on Florida successMike TaibbiFlorida
video thumbnailNBC2008 Hillary Rodham Clinton campaignReflects on emotions, stresses of life on stumpBrian WilliamsLas Vegas
video thumbnailCBS2008 Presidential General Election field overviewRivals describe snafus in getting, giving adviceKatie CouricNo Dateline
video thumbnailABCEconomy expansion slows: recession risks assessedStimulus package trial balloons on Capitol HillMartha RaddatzWashington DC
video thumbnailCBSEconomy expansion slows: recession risks assessedWorries spread from credit cards, employmentAnthony MasonNew York
video thumbnailNBCBank system suffers global lack of liquid fundsBig American banks need foreign capital infusionLisa MyersWashington DC
video thumbnailABCMarine mammals threatened by USNavy sonarPresident Bush opposes limits on submarine noiseNed PotterNew York
video thumbnailCBSPrescription drug Zetia efficacy problemsTardy research release, suspicious stock saleSusan KoeppenNew York
video thumbnailNBCNevada state name pronunciation causes controversyVowel is correctly short from Spanish for snowyGeorge LewisNevada
NO REPUBLICAN FRONTRUNNER Is it the election or is it the recession? For the fourth weekday out of the last five, the nightly newscasts could not decide which to focus on. This weekend's Republican South Carolina primary was Story of the Day. Mitt Romney's victory yesterday in Michigan means there is no frontrunner in the GOP field, putting extra pressure on his main rivals, John McCain and Mike Huckabee, not to fail on Saturday. Yet none of the networks led with South Carolina. Each chose a different aspect of the economy instead. NBC selected the quest by money center banks for foreign capital. CBS looked at growing credit card delinquencies and increasing joblessness. ABC previewed the debate on Capitol Hill over a plan for fiscal stimulus.

All three networks filed on the Republican Presidential campaign from South Carolina where Mitt Romney touched down briefly before leaving for Nevada. CBS' Bill Whitaker explained the sudden departure: "Romney is at the back of the pack here." The contest, NBC's Ron Allen told us, is between former prisoner of war John McCain, with his "solid base in the military community" and former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, in a state where born-again conservatives are "perhaps 60% of the GOP vote."

With three separate winners in the first three big contests, Republicans "have had to throw out their playbooks and they are all trying to map new strategies," as ABC's John Berman (embargoed link) put it. CBS' Jeff Greenfield saw the "road map ahead drawn with invisible ink." Rudolph Giuliani's leapfrog strategy of ignoring all the early states to focus on Florida may not be the solution, mused NBC's Mike Taibbi. According to the polls his "long-time double-digit lead here is gone." Still "he is going at it full bore in a three day bus tour and in the only television ads any candidate has been running."

"This is not how the Republican Party picks its nominees," CBS' Greenfield protested. "Since 1968, the GOP has chosen the obvious choice every time."


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.

I SAY NEVADA, YOU SAY NEVADA Brian Williams anchored NBC's newscast from Las Vegas, the site of the MSNBC Democratic Presidential debate, where he was obviously still smarting from the deluge of protest calls his network's affiliate received when he lengthened the vowel in the second syllable of the state's name. George Lewis showed us the official NBC Handbook of Pronunciation, published during World War II, that vindicated Williams' non-Hispanic rendition of the snowy state. Williams relented. It is Nevada not Nevada.

STIMULATING ABC led its newscast with the political angle on the looming recession. Martha Raddatz detected "a growing sense of urgency" to generate fiscal stimulus on Capitol Hill, a package of $100bn to $150bn. She reported that Chairman Benjamin Bernanke of the Federal Reserve has endorsed such spending "provided it is both temporary and quick." Partisan bickering persists over what to stimulate: Democrats would channel funds to low and middle income households; Republicans would favor tax breaks for businesses. CBS' economic lead had Anthony Mason look at the growing number of delinquent payments on credit card bills--up 20% in the last three months--and automobile loans. He warned that Federal Reserve interest rate cuts, "which can take months to work their way through the economy, may come too late to keep us out of recession." Cynthia Bowers followed up in CBS' Hitting Home series, which outlines the specific impact of hard times on individual households. She selected Theresa Welsh-Davis of suburban Chicago, whose paycheck as a community counselor has seen no raise even as gasoline prices have spiked by 30% and food from the dairy counter by 29%. Her bills run $1,000 more each month than her income and she may have to sell her house.

SO FAR SO GOOD Both NBC's Lisa Myers and ABC's Betsy Stark (embargoed link) followed up on yesterday's CBS story by Anthony Mason on the financial problems of the huge investment banks on Wall Street. Together, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, UBS and Bear Stearns have raised $46bn in capital from foreign investors by selling part-ownership of their businesses. ABC's Stark quoted the Wall Street maxim: "When someone loses money, someone else is making it." For that, in order, read banks and foreign governments. "So far foreigners buying chunks of Wall Street has not triggered the same political uproar as a Dubai company's ill-fated effort to take over operation of US ports," NBC's Myers remarked.

ELSEWHERE… Susan Koeppen, of CBS' Early Show, filed a follow-up on Monday's revelations (text link) about the lack of efficacy of prescription Vytorin. Congress has launched an investigation into why Merck and Schering-Plough did not release the results of the financially-harmful study until two years after it was completed--and into why Schering-Plough executive Carrie Smith-Cox sold $28m worth of company stock in the interim…President George Bush intervened in a lawsuit between environmentalists and the submarine fleet of the USNavy over underwater dangers from sonar. ABC's Ned Potter repeated the green charges that the noise is agonizing to marine mammals, forcing them to beach themselves. The Commander in Chief declared that national security trumped environmental legislation.

MENTIONED IN PASSING The network newscasts do not assign correspondents to all of the news of the day. If Tyndall Report readers come across videostreamed reports online of stories that were mentioned only in passing, post the link in comments for us to check out.

Today's examples: Mark Siljander, a former Republican Congressman, has been indicted for moneylaundering funds stolen from USAID…Michael Nifong, the disbarred District Attorney of Durham NC who falsely prosecuted Duke University lacrosse players, has filed for bankruptcy…Cesar Laurean, the Camp Lejeune corporal suspected in the murder of a pregnant USMC comrade, may be on the run in his native Mexico…former NFL star OJ Simpson had his bail increased in Las Vegas…political protests in Rome consisted of bouncing hundreds of thousands of colored balls down the Spanish Steps…brain waves from a monkey on a treadmill in North Carolina are controling a robot in Japan.