Race calling – don’t you hate it?

A nice piece on how political coverage gets sucked onto the nihilism of race-calling.

HT Brad Delong: George Packer: The Top of Our Game:

David Broder had a devastatingly unremarkable assessment of Sarah Palin in the Post the other day. Her speech at the Tea Party convention in Nashville showed off a public figure at the top of her gamea politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself…. Broder wasnt analyzing Palins positions or accusations, or the truth or falsehood of her claims, or even the nature of the emotions that she appeals to. He was reviewing a performance and giving it the thumbs up, using the familiar terminology of political journalism. This has been so characteristic of the coverage of politics for so long that it doesnt seem in the least bit odd…. It would be strange if the Timess coverage of the financial crisis, which has been stellar, focussed entirely on things like Richard Fulds handling of his P.R. problems while Lehman was going down. And it would be strange if the papers coverage of Afghanistan, which has also been stellar, focussed entirely on things like Hamid Karzais use of traditional Pashtun rhetoric in his effort to ride the wave of public anger at the Americans. Imagine Karzais recent inaugural address as covered by a Washington journalist:

Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats who have lately been disappointed in him, and at the same time he reassured the Afghan public that his patience with civilian casualties is wearing thin. A palace insider, who asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak candidly, said, If Karzai can continue to signal the West that he is concerned about corruption without alienating his warlord allies, he will likely be able to defuse the perception of a weak leader and regain his image as a unifying figure who can play the role of both modernizer and nationalist. Still, the palace insider acknowledged, tensions remain within Mr. Karzais own inner circle. At one point during the swearing-in ceremony, observers noted that Mohammad Hanif Atmar, his interior minister, seemed to ignore the greeting of Amrullah Saleh, the intelligence chief. The two have been rumored to be at odds ever since last years controversial election. A palace spokesman, speaking on background, denied that the incident had any significance. The sun was in Hanifs eyesthats it, the spokesman said.

A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt…. [A]s an exercise in accountability, political journalists should ask themselves from time to time: Would I write this about a war, or a depression? In the same vein, a government official once told me that the best way to cover Washington is as a foreign capitalas Baghdad, or Kabul.

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James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

It’s exasperating all right. In this country the practice seems to be connected with the emergence of thr specialist ‘political correspondent’. Examining the substance is left to economics, science, health, etc. ‘correspondents’, and the political correspondent just focuses on the political techniques. That would be OK if they just stripped the rhetoric bare, exposing how the techniques work, and noting the ’emotions played on’ as Packer puts it; but instead they evaulate the performance like — as you say — sport commentators.

The problem seems to be that these reporters have forgotten whom they are supposed to be making the politicians accountable to. Instead of asking the PM how policy X could possibly be expected to work given known deficiencies Y and Z, they’ll ask how he plans to ‘sell it to Caucus’, as though it’s the party he’s holding him accountable to rather than the public. At the ABC I think Barry Cassidy is the worst offender, but ther are others nearly as bad.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
11 years ago

The worst of the TV reporters is Karen Middleton at SBS. I’m guessing this is part of the active importation of CNN culture by the SBS management under Paul Cutler.
She’s not just the worst when it comes to race calling and “he said, she said” journalism, but the way this style of journalism was adopted. Most of the time you can dismiss it as laziness, an easy way to avoid charges of bias or just a manifestation of the “beltway mentality”.
SBS seems to adopt it as a standard of journalism to consciously emulate. Defaulting to something rubbish through inertia is one thing, taking the ideal to be spin on how spinners’ spin is spinning is abysmal.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Re. Barry Cassidy. I don’t watch Insiders, so it was actually his 7.30 Report days I was remembering. You didn’t mention Jim Middleton, but he did the same routine.

A related beef I have concerns the ‘Spin Doctors’ segment on Sydney ABC radio ‘Mornings’ program. I don’t suppose you have anything like that in Melbourne, but Richard might know what I’m talking about. Two PR people are given free air time to ply their trade. They review the publicity disasters of the week and suggest how the politician, business person, rock star or whoever shgould spin them and cut the losses.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
11 years ago

I’m not surprised that political reporting emulates sports reporting. Here’s why:

1. News is entertainment. Ask yourself how often you’ve studied a policy issue that doesn’t personally interest you or is not related to your paid job. How many people read the news primarily to fulfill their duty as informed citizens?

Mr Citizen: “Sorry honey, I’ll get to the dishes as soon as I’ve figured out how this emissions trading system works.”

Mrs Citizen: “Get in here now! I did dishes for six months before you gave up trying to figure out how the GST worked.”

2. People like stories. A story about one (wo)man’s battle against the evil elites/neoliberals/denialists/alarmists is a lot easier to understand and a lot more entertaining than economic modeling. The more closely the story resembles an action movie the better.

3. People are interested in other people. We like to see Malcolm Fraser’s bottom lip quiver with emotion, to see Bob Hawke cry, to watch John Howard beat his fists on the podium while the audience turn their backs on him. Character development is a key element of a political campaign (remember the Man from Hope?)

What would happen to advertising revenues if newspaper editors filled their papers with abstract stories about climate change modeling, economic forecasts, and detailed costings of election promises?

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
11 years ago

That’s an interesting comparison. I suspect that when pollsters ask strong partisans about issues where leaders have taken sides they react to this as an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to the team. Opinions are a display of identity (how else would non-experts manage to have so many firm opinions about issues that require expert knowledge?).

When Ford and Holden nuts get in an argument about which marque is better, it’s understood that they’ll use the evidence to support their side. Doing anything else spoils the fun.

Partisans often develop an interest in the game itself. They start to see themselves as insiders.

People who watch the 7:30 Report don’t need the ABC’s help to decide how to vote. Chances are, they’re long-term partisans. So the fun is in watching how the game is played.

You mentioned Fran Kelly — here she is in 2002:

Fran Kelly: The central message from today was clear: Labor’s pinning its aspirations for victory on the aspirational voters.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
11 years ago

Yes, I still never cease to be amazed by seemingly smart people’s inability/unwillingness to analyse issues and instead simply to adopt the stance that suits their partisan orientation. I was on the ABC radio Morning Show “3 Big Questions” segment again yesterday with one of the other panellists being a long-time (but now retired) local government representative with Green orientation. She was a staunch opponent of a nuclear waste dump for the NT (planned for a remote location outside Tennant Creek) but wasn’t even momentarily phased by the fact that most of the waste is spent medical isotopes currently stored in the middle of Darwin and most other cities in Australia. Apparently (though for reasons she didn’t articulate) it’s better to leave it in the middle of cities than in a purpose-built secure facility in the largely uninhabited outback. And, as far as the waste from the Lucas Heights research reactor was concerned (rather more high level than medical isotopes), she happily and instantly segued between arguing that it was far too dangerous to be transported on NT roads and so utterly safe that it should be left in Sydney!!! You could understand a practising politician taking that sort of stance because it’s just pandering to populist ignorance, but these were clearly her genuine views because she’s retired from political life.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

Quite agree with Don@6.

“A story about one (wo)man’s battle against the evil elites/neoliberals/denialists/alarmists is a lot easier to understand and a lot more entertaining than economic modeling. The more closely the story resembles an action movie the better.”

A point apparently never grasped by those who fulminate about Hollywood “lefties” making films with corporate villains.

Nicholas Gruen
11 years ago

Paul Krugman’s latest on related phenomena.

Nicholas Gruen
11 years ago

Dear oh dear,

We’re at the racecalling at New Matilda. “Make no mistake, the insulation debacle has hurt the Government.”

Thanks Ben.