Political Journalism and Political Science: Still a First Date

At Poynter, James Warren writes about last weekend’s meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, focusing on a panel titled, “The Media and the 2016 Election: A View from the Campaign Trail.”  While I appreciate the journalists who would show up to such a thing, if Warren’s report is any indication, even the journalists interested in political science still have a lot to learn from it.

Steve Peoples of the Associated Press suggested the 2016 election was leading him to question all of his assumptions, which is probably a good practice for most people in general.  But Warren reports that Peoples wondered what journalists would do if you cant trust the polling.

If this was Twitter, I’d be hashtagging that sentiment #facepalm and #headdesk for several reasons.

First, it is usually the case that post-election seminars feature journalists confessing that too much of election coverage is focused on the horse race.  Political scientists would tell you there’s good reason to be concerned about it:

“Patterson (1993; 2005) and others fear that the focus on the game over substance undermines the ability of citizens to learn from coverage and to reach informed decisions in elections or about policy debates. Capella and Jamieson (1997) argue that the strategy frame portrays candidates and elected officials as self-interested and poll driven opportunists, a portrayal that they show promotes cynicism and distrust among audiences. Farnsworth and Licther (2006) go so far as to suggest that horse race coverage in the primary elections results in a self-reinforcing bandwagon effect with positive horse race coverage improving a candidate’s standing in subsequent polls and negative horse-race coverage hurting a candidate’s poll standings.”

The 2008 and 2012 elections had much the same problem.  And 2016 was no different, with horse race coverage accounting for most of the reason a candidate like Donald Trump got mostly positive coverage.  Indeed, while Nate Silver is a data journalist rather than a political scientist, his analysis supports the bandwagon thesis: the media covered Trump well in excess of his poll standings, ultimately driving those standings higher despite bad favorability numbers.

In contrast, you can check Jack Shafer‘s 2008 hot take defending horse race coverage to see how much worse it sounds now than then (and it sounded bad then).

Second, while there was a small systematic error in the 2016 polling, Nate Silver explained before the election why his model showed a 28.6% chance of Trump winning and the reasons he gave pretty much explained in advance what happened.  And even if you don’t buy the precision of a model like Silver’s (and you probably should not), it was Sean Trende (who holds a poli sci degree) noting that a 25% chance was like flipping a coin and having it come up heads twice in a row — hardly shocking.

Instead, journalists and more conventional pundits tended to see 25% — or even 14% — as 0%, when in fact, sometimes unlikely results occur.  That does not wipe out the laws of probability.  The chances of rolling a six on one die are only 16.67%, but it still happens and when it does, it doesn’t mean the die is loaded or defective.

Third, polling isn’t the only thing political science has to offer journalism.  Political science could also offer a number of fundamental reasons — 2016 being an open seat election in a mediocre economy involving two poor candidates and a Democratic Party that had been losing white working class voters for decades — that helped account for Trump’s victory, all of which could have been considered and incorporated into journalists’ thinking well in advance of election day.

Molly Ball and Nia-Malika Henderson apparently commented on the sorry state of the Democratic Party.  Ball thought it was “hard to underestimate how screwed the Democrats are,” but noting their situation wasn’t hopeless, recalled that Barack Obama was a little-known state senator before the 2008 election.

I’m hoping Warren mischaracterized Ball, as this is almost entirely incorrect, and any good political scientist would have been able to correct her.

First, by the time of the 2008 cycle, Obama had been elected to the U.S. Senate and had been the highly-publicized and highly-lauded keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.  Political scientists would identify such a person as a rising star, well positioned to compete in the “invisible primary” of party officials, donors and influencers that occurs before a single vote is cast.

And in fact, Obama proved to be a prodigious fundraiser from both Wall Streeters and small donors alike.  While it was certainly possible that he could have fizzled had he lost the Iowa caucuses, political scientists would have predicted he could mount a strong challenge to Hillary Clinton.

[Aside: The fundraising is usually crucial because of the cost of paid media.  In 2016, Donald Trump entered the race with high name-ID and a press willing to provide free media well in excess of his poll numbers.]

Second, as for the Democrats being screwed, Jay Cost (another political scientist by education, iirc) has observed that “[i]f the Republican party were a publicly traded company, January 20 would be the day to sell, sell, sell.  This may sound counterintuitive, but the verdict of history is clear, if not quite unanimous: The moment a party achieves total control of the government is the moment just before power begins to slip through its fingers.”

Finally, Ball apparently wants to know if there has been a lasting realignment of the parties, or whether 2016 was an anomaly.  Trende’s book, The Lost Majority, would tell you no such thing truly exists.  See also Jay Cost:

In addition, while the panel apparently noted that Hillary did well with college-educated whites, I have noted previously that Trump was outpolled by down-ticket GOPers in many races, often by appealing less to working-class whites and more to college-educated whites.  John Judis — a progenitor of the Emerging Democratic Majority theory — noted the GOP’s overall improvement with white voters, but particularly college-educated white voters, back in 2015.

The GOP having Trump as its public face might change those trends in time, even if it did not occur in 2016.  But a political scientist would tell you that’s where the analysis starts.

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“Fake News” Checking and Fake “News Checking”

You may have read that Google plans to include “Fact Checks” of its news search results, much as Facebook has taken to doing with its news feeds.  And like Facebook, Google is farming out the job to so-called “fact-checkers” including Politifact, Snopes and the Washington Post.

The left-leaning biases of these organizations is well documented, but let’s briefly review them.  Politifact is essentially forced run lengthier explanations to justify the site’s disparate treatment of Left and Right, and treated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton quite differently, despite consistent polling showing most voters found them both dishonest and untrustworthy.

Most recently, Politifact retracted a 2014 article that found Obama Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s claim that “we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” of Syria to be “Mostly True.”  Politifact handed out that rating despite the fact that there were discrepancies in the accounting and some stockpile sites lacked even an agreement for inspection.   It turns out that the assurances of Democrat politicians and global bureaucrats are assertions, not facts.

Snopes hires as fact-checkers alumni from various left-wing news sites like Raw Story.  And they are not very transparent when asked about their practices.  So it’s not surprising that the Snopes coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal contained only a few fact checks, almost all of which reviewed claims other people made about it, rather than Clinton’s numerous and obvious false statements about it.  Even The Guardian managed to fact-check Hillary.

As for the Washington Post, consider that the WaPo discontinued fact-checking during the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats also held large majorities in Congress.  Fact-checking resumed at roughly the same time a GOP Congress regained control in 2011.  The Washington Post sees itself as speaking truth to power…unless it’s untrammeled Democrat power.

Indeed, the Washington Post recently exercised no editorial control when Dana Milbank published a column based on claims about judicial filibusters less accurate than claims which previously had been awarded two and three Pinocchios by the WaPo fact-checker.  This approach is fact-checking for thee, not me.

None of this is surprising because so-called “fact-checking” is not so much about establishing facts but imposing a particular Truth.  And it is not about being restrained by their own Truth as it is about imposing it upon the Other.

While I do not agree with BuzzFeed’s EIC Ben Smith on everything, he is certainly correct to note (as Charlie Sykes has) that left-leaning Big Media is desperate to try to retain the “gatekeeping” power they enjoyed in the pre-internet age.  They, with the help of complaining left-wingers, have managed to cajole some of the biggest players in the internet media cartel into helping them.

I suspect that trying to impose authority rather than earning it will merely perpetuate the cycle of distrust that has already brought the media to new lows.

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Big Media is Distrusted. So What?

Given the clickbaity title, I’ll remind you that when it comes to political journalism — especially since Donald Trump’s election — I’m more pessimistic than The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, who spends much of her time giving the media grief.

She has plenty of advice for how journalists could do their job better and often advocates that they should listen more to people who voted differently than their newsrooms.  OTOH, I have seen the establishment media try putting people on “the conservative beat” enough times to have given up much hope that works.  Until Big Media hires enough people with non-Left viewpoints as both reporters and editors to constantly challenge newsroom groupthink, the basic problems will persist.

So why the clickbaity title?  Mostly to distinguish between two types of media analysis or criticism.

Let’s call the first, more common type academic or institutional.  These pieces examine whether a story is accurate or well-supported, whether columnists are contradicting themselves, whether journalism — or America — would function better if the media adopted certain practices, and so on.

Another type of media analysis is more practical or political.  Presuming — as conservatives (and most voters) have concluded — that Big Media has been biased against Trump (as it generally is against Republicans year after year), what does that mean as a matter of politics?

The “So what?” question has different answers, depending on the analysis applied.

It’s one thing to point out — as I have to at least one establishment journalist —  that according to Gallup, only 32% of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, which should concern journalists in the academic or institutional sense.   Gallup even records numbers as low as 20-21% for those who have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in TV news and newspapers.

These are generally conservatives’ go-to stats on trust in Big Media, but the result depends on the pollster and the questions asked.  The American Press Institute reported that 58% have some confidence in the press as an institution.  Pew reported that 76% of adults have at least some trust in national news organizations, with an even higher number for local news.  People presuming the public has simply tuned out the media as untrustworthy should consider Gallup arguably is presenting the worst-case scenario for the media.

Moreover, the worst-case numbers from Gallup also show that trust in TV and newspapers has been in the low-to-mid-20s for almost a decade.  The steeper decline in trust among GOPers in this cycle does not much affect what has been a long-running trend of declining trust in the media.

Numbers like these matter primarily in the institutional sense.  They matter less directly in a political sense, insofar as you might use them to rate the job approval of some other collective body, like Congress.  From that perspective, there may be an analogy to the “I hate Congress, but like my Member of Congress” dynamic.

Indeed, liberals tend to trust establishment and more overtly liberal news sources, while generally distrusting conservative sources.  And vice versa.  People of “mixed” ideology tend to trust the liberal/establishment sources, though (unlike liberals) they also tend to trust Fox News.  And everyone tends to trust the Wall Street Journal (though one might argue its news coverage historically skews more to the left than its editorials might suggest).

When judging political fights between Pres. Obama and the GOP Congress, Big Media often liked to cite polls showing that people favored Obama, while not addressing the fact that Obama: (a) was elected nationally, while legislators are not; (b) Obama needed to be popular nationally, while legislators need only appeal to their constituents; and (c) the machinery of government and the media frames the President, not Congress, as the focus of political stories daily.

Similarly, when assessing the media as a political actor, it may be useful to remember that the media does not have the same demands as a president or a legislator, ratings are not the same as popularity, and criticism of the media is usually not as high-profile to the average viewer as media criticism of politicians.

In this political moment, however, Pres. Trump currently is in a very high-profile, heated battle with the media.  So how’s he doing?

In early February, Quinnipiac found that 57% of voters were at least somewhat concerned that Trump will try to limit the freedom of the press, while 42% are not so concerned.

A more recent Fox News poll found, on a 45-42% split (within the margin of error), more voters trust the Trump administration to “tell the public the truth” than the White House press corps.  The same poll found 55% percent say it’s better for the country if the media covers the president aggressively, while 38% say it would be better if reporters gave the president the benefit of the doubt.

The Fox poll also found that 71% think Trump should be more careful when he speaks, while only 28% like that he speaks his mind.

Keep in mind that the internal numbers on these questions generally have the partisan and ideological splits that you might expect.  I will say that the Fox numbers are better for Trump among independents than the toplines suggest, favoring Trump over the media by a 2-1 margin and split on whether the media should be aggressive.

OTOH, the internals also reflect the split between college-educated whites and whites without a degree that we saw in the election cycle and may be relevant to GOP officeholders who won with a different electoral map than Trump.

If you think the media coverage of Trump has been as bad as I do — and as unlikely to change in its fundamental bias, even if the media calms down somewhat — Trump basically matching the media for trustworthiness, the Trump numbers resting where you would expect for a base of GOP support (not much beyond that), and the lopsided majority who think Trump should speak more carefully should be concerning to Trump supporters.

The Trump White House seems to want Big Media to stand in as the opposition party (or make that status overt, if you will).  Fair enough.  But if Big Media even comes close to cleaning up its act, it may offer more formidable opposition than Hillary Clinton.

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Tucker’s Tomato Can Television

‘Member when righties laughed at lefties who went nuts for sharing videos of the format “WATCH [Lefty TV personality] DESTROY/EVISCERATE/SLAY [Righty politician or issue]”?  I ‘member.

And yet I see righties giving the same sort of treatment to similar clips from Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight.

The most recent virality involved Carlson taking on USA Today Deputy Editorial Editor David Mastio over an editorial noting that White House counselor Stephen Bannon and the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi share a belief in a “clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.”  That’s not quite right; Bannon stated in 2014 that “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.”  But USAT drew its conclusions (correct or not) based on the totality of Bannon’s comments about Islam, as noted in the editorial.

Carlson led off his segment with Mastio by means of a pop quiz:

Like Mr. Wurtzel, I tend to think “Bannon doesn’t behead journalists” comes across as damning the man with faint praise.

Carlson, however, does behead journalists, figuratively, and he draws quite an audience.  Beyond the social sharing, his ratings are yuge.

This should surprise no one.  Carlson knows the formula.  In the long history of cable news morphing into infotainment, when Jon Stewart famously compared CNN’s Crossfire to pro wrestling, Carlson was one of his direct targets.  (Carlson has claimed he never understood Stewart’s point.)

Of course, Tucker Carlson Tonight isn’t as scripted as the WWE.  But it’s not unlike watching a favored heavyweight boxer work his way toward a title belt by sparring with a series of tomato cans.

On Crossfire, Carlson had to tangle with seasoned pros like James Carville or Paul Begala nightly.  On Fox, virtually none of Carlson’s recent foils have nearly his experience in what passes for debate on television.  And as often as not they are: C-list writers for outlets like the Huffington Post, Elite Daily, and Teen Vogue; generally unknown writers like Mastio or Fortune’s Mathew Ingram; writers with, um, colorful histories like Kurt Eichenwald; and the occasional businessman, college student, or random crank.

Even against inexperienced guests with weak-to-outlandish arguments, Carlson resorted to a straw man argument versus Mastio, and guilt-by association with Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca.

Carlson’s obviously a smart guy and just as obviously talented on camera.  But he risks re-enacting the moment in Gladiator where Maximus, after swiftly dispatching his vastly inferior opponents, bellows to the audience, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?”  Because they clearly were not.

And even if the crowd remains entertained, you might ask how lefties giggling over the Stewarts, Colberts, Olivers, and Bees worked out for them.  I can tell you from experience that junk food is tasty, but makes you flabby in excess.

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