The Savvy Idiots of Political Journalism

My view is that there’s nothing that’s secret in campaigns anymore — but that doesn’t mean everything is understandable in a campaign. The ability of campaigns to run circles around journalists in some places is strong, and it’s not healthy.
-Terry Nelson, John McCain's 2008 campaign manager.

It isn't getting much coverage -- and it's easy to understand why. In a New York Times op-ed over the weekend, journalist and author Sasha Issenberg informs us that nearly everything journalists think they know about political campaigns is wrong and those misconceptions are reflected in reporting.

I covered the 2008 election for The Boston Globe, filing articles that I hoped would rise above the superficial and ephemeral poll-driven reporting that I had been trained to disdain. But after spending the last two years reporting on the scientific revolution that is quietly reshaping politics, I realized how much of the story my colleagues and I had missed.

Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either “grilled” or “broiled.”

“When I went to work for my first campaign, in 1994, I was actually surprised at how journalists tended to think one step ahead where campaigns are four steps ahead,” says Joel Benenson, a former newspaper reporter who now serves as President Obama’s chief pollster. “Think of it as a level-five player in chess and a level-eight player in chess. You had people covering campaigns who are at the mercy of the grandmasters of politics.”

In a way, all of this is actually a trap political journalists set for themselves. It's a problem that longtime media critic Jay Rosen calls "the cult of savviness":

...In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.

The problem with all this savviness is twofold; first -- as Issenberg points out -- it's all wrong and all the super-serious chumps with microphones have no idea what the hell they're talking about. But the second part of the problem is probably more important: there's absolutely no reason why you, the voter, needs to know all this inside baseball crap anyway.

Think about it. Issenberg identifies a problem with covering campaigns; journalists only think they know "what moves votes." But is there some reason why you should care about which candidate has the better strategy to win your vote? Have you ever voted for the candidate you thought used polling data better or was more skilled at manipulating demographics or had the wisest media strategy? When it comes to information you can actually use, this is all trivia. Yet in political reporting, it's treated like it's the most important information in the world. Strategy becomes much more important than policy, which means policy -- i.e., the stuff you care about -- is covered almost exclusively by the campaigns themselves, which the media then picks up as a he said/she said story.

Mitt Romney, for example, can tell lie after lie after lie and the press won't identify them as lies -- but they will go in depth with polling and talking heads and face to face interviews to determine whether those lies are working. That's not the useful information. The useful information is that all that stuff Mitt's saying just plain is not true.

All of the problems Issenberg identifies wouldn't be problems at all if the cult of savviness were to close up shop for good. Journalists are reading polling data wrong? So what, who cares? It's not like that information is useful to voters anyway. Cover policy instead of strategy and everything will go like clockwork.


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