News media is biased -- toward horse-race coverage

The New York Times | The Washington Post | Politico

Horse-race-style coverage of the 2012 election creates its own gravity, Ross Douthat argues in The New York Times:

There are plenty of stories circulating that might be expected to hurt Obama’s political prospects, but given the press’s horse-race biases none of them are powerful enough to pull the spotlight away from Romney’s flailings: They’re either big but not new enough (the lousy economy) or new but not big enough (the administration’s shifting Libya stories) to break through the campaign coverage.

Romney, he writes, should have taken this landscape into account:

As a presidential candidate part of your job is to be aware of how easily the horse race narrative can overwhelm whatever story you want the country to be hearing, and to do everything in your power to actively shape a narrative that will inevitably be shaped by the press’s zeal for “who’s up/who’s down” reportage as well.

But Douthat does worry expecting a candidate to shape his campaign this way isn't good for "the press or the republic that it’s supposed to serve." Thursday on "Diane Rehm," Politico Executive Editor Jim VandeHei said horse-race coverage is "really important." Erik Wemple was listening and transcribing:

And I think I get really nervous when I hear the monks of journalism say, ‘Well, we should just cover the facts and just cover the most serious policy issues.’ You’re going to have nine readers.

Wemple says VandeHei could be right, if the type of coverage Politico pumps out proves to be "correct and prophetic." Interestingly, the top story Friday morning on Politico says Mitt Romney's personality is to blame for the stories about his campaign's ineptitude. It's the horse-raciest psychological profile of Romney I've ever read (pleasing his father doesn't enter into it until the penultimate paragraph!), pitting Romney's deftness as an executive against the fact that "The candidate suit fits him unnaturally," as a "top Romney official" put it.

Romney is cautious by nature, which paid off in business. But in politics, rather than chart a bold course and stick with it, he winds up trimming and dodging in ways that, cumulatively, sink in with voters.

If it's not followed up later in the day with a photo gallery of contrasting photos that typify each of Romney's warring psychological impulses, the monks have won.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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