After slobbering over a never-to-materialize Barack Obama win in New Hampshire and flip-flopping on the electoral viability of a crotchety John McCain, the media has proved that their skill at horse-race forecasting is about as reliable as that of people who bet on real-life horse races. That is to say, they’re not good at it.
Jay Rosen, a veteran media critic, has written a great takedown of horse-race journalism for TomDispatch and Salon. Rosen gets to the depth of the problem: It’s easy for over-taxed journalists to write horse-race style pieces, especially if everybody else is doing it.
Who’s-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It “works” regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the “surprise” becomes a good story for a few days.) Who’s going to win—and what’s their strategy—plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.
Where the media could be chattering about why a candidate should win, instead they blabber about if the candidate will win. It’s a pernicious problem. Hopefully Rosen’s article might start a narrative of self-reflection among some journalists. I give it about a 20 percent chance of succeeding.