Know Thyself and Prosper

Ezra doesn’t like Politico’s new feature:

As of now, they’ve just unveiled a new feature where, every day, they will rank whether Obama or McCain “won” the day. So yesterday, for instance, McCain “won” the day because “The USA Today/Gallup poll giving [McCain/Palin] a 4-point lead among registered voters framed the day’s top question: Does McCain now hold the advantage?” Read that again. McCain “won” yesterday’s day of campaigning because a poll conducted last week showed him in the lead and that led reporters at places like Politico to write about his advantage which in turn led The Politico to render the objective judgment that McCain won the day because they framed their coverage in a way that was favorable to him. During that same day, Sarah Palin showed she didn’t know how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac worked, which could have generated a lot of coverage and given Obama the day, but that’s not what The Politico decided to emphasize.

I think this is basically the wrong framing for this. The reason outlets like Politico focus on this stuff is two-fold; firstly they don’t understand the policy stuff, and secondly it lets them fill more space with differnt stories. There’s only so many different ways you can report the GSE gaffe, for instance, without saying the same thing over and over again. So by filling their pages, or television segments, as it were, with “analysis” like this, they get to both fill more space in a more varied manner and “dress up” like the political consultants, pundits, and, dare I say, politicos that these journalists by trade wish they were.

A more proper framing for why this is damaging, as opposed to just absurd, comes from something Ezra wrote a few days ago:

 The media is incapable of admitting itself to be an actor. They shape the public’s understanding of politics, but pretend they are a mode of transmission rather than an agent in control of information. That gets you the consistently confusing coverage where the very people who will decide how the public understands an event makes that decision by speculating how they think the public will understand an event. It is the pretense of objectivity at the expense of honesty. But it reaches new heights of absurdity when the subject is not politics, but the media itself, and the media must answer questions about itself by asking how they imagine viewers are judging their coverage. And it is sad, too, watching people who once wanted to be Carl Bernstein reduced to moderating a focus group that exists only inside their heads.

And that, basically, is why they frame coverage in such absurd manners as “who won the day.” Because covering politics like journalists requires them to make judgments. To report that Sarah Palin made a gaffe about the way Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac operate, they have to make the pronouncement, at least implicitly, that Sarah Palin doesn’t know anything about the GSE’s. To weave a narrative of dishonesty around the McCain campaign’s claims about Palin’s past positions and Obama’s current proposals, they have to declare that the McCain campaign is, in fact, lying. For some reason journalists just don’t have the backbone to do that anymore, so they weave these obviously crazy framings of politics as detached observors, telling you how the race is playing out based on some abstract belief of how you’re going to react to the events, even though you can’t react to the events until the media tells you about them.

It’s like The Twilight Zone in real time.