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The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us

January 21, 2008

Jay Rosen

Just so you know, “the media” has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not “get behind” candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. Nor does it “buy” this line or “swallow” that one. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.

1. The Herd of Independent Minds

This does not mean you cannot blame the media for things. Go right ahead! Brainless beasts at large in public life can do plenty of damage; and later on — when people ask, “What happened here?” — it sometimes does make sense to say…the beast did this. It’s known as “the pack” in political journalism, but I prefer “the herd of independent minds” (from Harold Rosenberg, 1959) because I think it’s more descriptive of the dynamic. Mark Halperin of Time’s < a href="http://thepage.time.com/">The Page (more about him later) calls the beast < a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gang_of_500">the Gang of 500. But gangs have leaders, which means a mind. That’s more than you can say about the media.

Now, the pack, lacking a brain, almost had a heart attack when Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, since they had told us Obama would run away with it because the pollsters told them the same thing. The near-heart attack wasn’t triggered by a bad prediction, which can happen to anyone, but rather by some spectacular wreckage in the reality-making machinery of political journalism. The top players had begun to report on the Obama wave of victories before there was any Obama wave of victories. The campaign narrative had gotten needlessly — one could say mindlessly — ahead of itself, as when stories about anticipated outcomes in the New Hampshire vote reverberated into campaigns said to be preparing for those outcomes even before New Hampshire voted.

“PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Key campaign officials may be replaced. She may start calling herself the underdog. Donors would receive pleas that it is do-or-die time. And her political strategy could begin mirroring that of Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican rival…”

That’s Patrick Healy in the New York Times the day of the New Hampshire primary, reporting on what would happen, according to nameless campaign insiders, if events about to unfold that day validated previous reports about what was likely to unfold that day. Healy’s best defense would be: Wait a minute, people with the Clinton campaign actually told me those things. They turned out to be premature and wrong. I didn’t make it up!

Which is true. But when actual facts are used in the construction of news fictions — and reports about the moves to be made in Hillaryland after Obama won Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were precisely that, a news fiction — your story can be accurate, well-edited, within genre conventions, and, at the same time, deeply un-informational, not to mention wrong. In fact, accurate news about the race that subtracts from our understanding of it is one of the quirky features of chronic mindlessness in campaign media.

By mindless I generally mean: No one’s in charge, or “the process” is. Conventional forms thrive, even if few believe they work. Routines master people. The way it’s been done “chooses” the way it shall be done.

Independent bloggers, who should have more distance from the pack mind (and often do) were not necessarily better on this score. Greg Sargent of TPM Media — the blog empire run by political journalist Josh Marshall — reported as follows on January 7th: “Camp Hillary insiders who have been with her a very long time, such as Patti Solis Doyle, are worried about the long term damage that could be done to Hillary if she decides to fight on after a New Hampshire loss, though there’s no indication they are yet urging an exit.” Doyle was said to be alarmed about damage to Clinton’s Senate career from staying in the race amid a humiliating string of defeats.

Campaign news in the subjunctive isn’t really news. And primary losses don’t especially need to come at us pre-reacted-to, especially when there is plenty of time to air those reactions once any “string of defeats” actually happens. But while an individual mind in the press corps is quite capable of realizing this, the herd is not.

A good example would be an MSNBC program I saw just before the New Hampshire voting, where Dan Abrams asked his panel — including Rachel Maddow, Pat Buchanan, and himself — what each thought the final vote would be. The guests should have said, “How do we know? We’re not New Hampshire voters, or professional pollsters.” That would be intelligent — and accurate. But they did something mindless instead. Each took a few points off the polls everyone else in the pack was reading and gave a “personal” prediction — Obama by 4, Obama by 7.

Okay, so it’s not a big offense — but I didn’t say it was. I said it was an illustration of routine mindlessness…

READ THE FULL PIECE ON TOMDISPATCH.COM

Jay Rosen teaches Journalism at New York University, and is the creator of the blog, PressThink. He also writes for the Huffington Post. In July 2006 he started NewAssignment.Net, his experimental site for pro-am, open source reporting projects. He is the co-publisher with Arianna Huffington of OfftheBus, a collaboration between NewAssignment.Net and the Huffington Post in which citizen journalists tackle the ’08 campaign.

Copyright 2008 Jay Rosen

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