Kill the Pundits!

Ok, so not really, but Ezra has a damn good point:

The impact has been significant. A USA Today/Gallup poll show 46% thought Obama won the debate, while 34% judged McCain the victor. Worse for the McCain campaign, “more than one-third of viewers, or 37%, said they had less confidence in McCain to fix economic problems after seeing the debate; 23% said more.” An LA Times/Bloomberg poll saw 49% name Obama the winner, while 45% preferred McCain. Crucially, “voters said Obama seemed more presidential by a 46 percent to 33 percent margin. Among those uncertain about their vote — those who are either undecided or declaring they may change preference — Obama was more than 2-to-1 ahead of McCain on this question.” And finally, the Gallup tracking poll, which included one full day of post-debate interviews, registered an eight-point lead for Obama.

This raises an interesting question. Obama scored an extremely clear win on Friday night. But the pundits scored the debate for McCain. That would be fine if the pundits were there to score the substance of the debate, and they believed that McCain made better, and more factually accurate, points. But that’s not their professed job (sadly). Rather, they score the political implications of the debate. And their early reviews — mildly, but mostly unanimously, for McCain — were precisely opposite the public’s impressions. That seems like a problem.

On the face of it, this pretty clearly illustrates the absurd nature of our media environment in this country. “Experts” are supposed to “analyze” how voters will react to every little aspect of politics, and in doing so they totally ignore scientific public opinion data and, indeed, completely contradict it. It’s a farce, to be sure, but it underlines two very specific examples of bias that are going to have to be addressed if we expect anyone to really demand a better press.

Firstly, there’s the bottom line bias. Another aspect of the media narrative that is starting to get more notice is that the pundits continue to talk about a “neck and neck” race, even though poll after poll show’s Obama widening his lead to a fairly convincing margin at the moment. In other words, the race really isn’t that close, but the media narrative isn’t matching the data. Now you could say the media’s out of touch, but we all know they obsess about these numbers, so the idea that they don’t know the race isn’t that tight, at least at the moment, seems fairly far fetched. Instead, what’s really at work is the media’s own profit interest. Blowouts aren’t good for ratings. No one really watches a football game when one team leads by 30 in the 4th quarter, but when one team is down by 3 with the ball and 4:00 left in the game, it’s great television. Similarly, when one candidate leads by a wide margin, electoral politics is less interesting to the masses, but when it’s perceived that anything can happen, it can be riveting TV. This was on display throughout the primary season, when the media essentially propped up the “tight race” narrative even though there was almost no realistic chance of Hillary Clinton winning. But the primaries had been a ratings bonanza, and the corporate media outlets damn sure didn’t want that ending, so they distorted the nature of the race in their coverage. That’s basically what’s going on here. The media needs to keep McCain in this thing to keep the impression that anyone can win, and so you’re going to see lots of favorable “analysis” for McCain.

The second bias is one of simple disconnect. That is to say, the media talking heads don’t see things the same way voters do. What’s important to the media is conflict. They need it to weave their narratives and write their stories. They need someone to be “aggressive,” to give them a glorified human interest piece to type out and print really quickly. And that’s what John McCain did. From his repeated lines that Obama “didn’t understand” the issue at hand to his not so honest attacks on Obama in the domestic issues portion of the debate, McCain was the one most actively driving conflict in the discussion. So then the media reports that McCain was “aggressive” and had Obama “on the defensive” in the terms of their boxingesque rhetoric. But voters generally don’t see things this way. To them, based on the actual data, McCain’s charges rang hollow because Obama seemed to understand things just fine. Or, in other words, voters tend to pay more attention to the entire thing and form impressions based on what they see, and the media tends to look for stories they can write, which leads them to miss the bigger picture.

All in all though, it’s beyond time for a better media. How anyone goes about getting there though, I don’t really know. Putting more people like Jeffrey Toobin on the air would be a good first step.