Campaign 2008: Mainstream Media, Take a Deep Breath

by Jeff Siegel

After the Iowa caucuses last week, a truly gifted pundit wrote: "Hillary Clinton is far from finished."

I mention this not to pat myself on the back, but to offer an insight into the job the country's mainstream media are doing covering the 2008 campaign. Which is lousy.

Almost all of the outlets, from CNN to MSNBC to The Washington Post to my beloved New York Times (and especially my beloved New York Times), are so caught up in outdoing each other in anointing the party nominees that they can't see what's actually happening. Something is terribly wrong when a cranky ex-sportswriter in the middle of the country is right and the people who are on the scene are completely wrong.

The MSM (that's what hip bloggers call the mainstream media) drove their stake through Clinton's heart on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. Even the BBC, usually more circumspect about U.S. politics, was discussing a John McCain-Barack Obama matchup in the November election on Tuesday.

So then Sen. Clinton won New Hampshire. How rude of her.

The mainstream media, as Rick Rockwell has noted so ably here, have not done their job during this campaign. They have focused on the horse race to the detriment of everything else. This is bad enough. What's worse is that they have even screwed up the horse race.

And, after messing up in New Hampshire, they haven't learned anything. "Clinton Escapes to Fight Another Day," The Times says. "Clinton resurrects her campaign," MSNBC wrote. And, my favorite, The Post blaming the polls: "[They] fundamentally mischaracterized the status of the Democratic race." No kidding.

All of this crawfishing sounds like they're writing about Shirley Temple – not the woman who, two weeks ago, was touted as a lock for the Democratic nomination.

The mainstream media do not see the campaign as a baseball season, even though that is what it is. It starts with pre-primary campaigning and the first primaries, the equivalent of spring training. Then it moves to the main primaries, the early part of the season where teams blunder and teammates get to know each other and the best teams often play badly and look like they won't be any good.

Then, sometime in late June or early July, good teams find their groove, and win 12 out of 15, playing with style and grace. Clinton may have done that Tuesday night, but it still may be an early-season fluke. We're not close to June or July yet.

All political reporters should read Mark Harris' Bang the Drum Slowly, which is not only a great baseball book that details the season's ups and down, but a novel of depth and intelligence. Each of which has been lacking from this season's political reporting.

Instead, the MSM's employees see the campaign as soundbites, film at 11 opportunities, gossip, and a chance to get scoops that become irrelevant five minutes later. There are any number of reasons for this, be they inside the Beltway hubris, being so close to the campaign that they can't see the forest for the trees, bosses who want horse race news, regardless of whether it's true or not, or that the reporters just aren't very good.

Hopefully, because the republic and our democracy depends so much on the media doing a better job than it has done, some among them will step back, take a deep breath, and change the way they do things. If they don't, all of us are in big trouble.

For those who want more background on the campaign, please check these archival posts:

(The photo of Sen. Hillary Clinton is from the Service Employees International Union from a meeting with the union in Washington, D.C. in 2007. The photo was obtained via Flickr, and is used with a Creative Commons License. The SEIU has not endorsed any presidential candidate on the national level, although candidates are competing for statewide endorsements of the union. Former Senator John Edwards received the union's state endorsement in New Hampshire.)

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