Media Blog

The Horse Race

Over at Pressthink, Jay Rosen has written a thought-provoking post about changing the way the press covers politics, particularly presidential campaigns. Rosen argues that the coverage of presidential politics for years has been geared toward the “master narrative” of the horse race — who’s winning, who’s not far behind, who doesn’t stand a chance, and so on. He writes that while most journalists themselves recognize the shortcomings of such an approach, they stick to it for the lack of an alternative.

Rosen suggests one: the ideas race, in which journalists would cover who’s doing the best job addressing various problems confronting the country such as health care, poverty, national security, etc.
Not bad. I have concerns though. For instance, could a conservative candidate ever win an “ideas race” judged by a mostly liberal community of journalists?
Let me back that up. Left-wing press critics almost never accuse journalists of harboring conservative views or of secretly being ideological conservatives. Such a thesis would be laughed right out of the room. Most mainstream-media journalists tend to vote for Democrats, and many came to their jobs directly from liberal opinion journals like The New Republic, Salon, and lately even TPMMuckraker
Their criticism instead has been that the media tilt right due in part to this horse race master narrative writ large. The more crass of their number put it more bluntly: Washington journalists worship power, they say. In the horse race of national politics, Republicans, at least until recently, were the big winners, and got favorable coverage because whether you win is the key variable in determining that.
I’ll admit that there might be some truth to that (though not nearly to the extent the left would have us believe). And you won’t find me defending the horse-race style of covering politics on those or any grounds. I’ve long argued for a more openly opinionated press, and I think that would go a long way toward changing the nature of political coverage. As Rosen notes, the horse race master narrative arose in part because of journalists’ fear of looking biased. What better way to avoid taking a stand on the issues than to stick to the mechanics of the polls?
Of course, with a mostly liberal press corps judging this race of ideas, conservatives would have a hard row to hoe. Then again, if mainstream-media political coverage functioned more like a debate than an ideological fraternity with its code of objectivity hiding a more or less uniformly left-of-center worldview, more conservatives might want to join the fray.  

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