Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This Journalism Sucks

Not that this is a new or particularly interesting complaint, but journalism today lacks a lot of the value we wish it would provide. I don't really know if journalism used to be that much better, but here's an example of some terrible journalism:

See what Politico did there? They hyped this story for two weeks that Pelosi might not retain her leadership position. To back up this ludicrous crisis claim, Politico talked to her opponent and his Blue Dog supporters. They interviewed Republicans in the House. They asked people in the Washington pundit business who knew that they wouldn't be quoted in Politico stories unless they acknowledged the possibility that House Democrats would want new leadership despite a total lack of evidence to support that conclusion. Because Politico is a boutique journalism shop that specializes in politics, these failures are particularly deplorable.

Developing this story line included the opportunity cost of investigating stories that will even real effects in the world. If the politico editorial layer hadn't been so doggedly focused on their narrative, they might have caught early wind of Senator Kyl's intention to prevent ratification of the START nuclear weapons control treaty. Or they might have reported on a story that we haven't heard yet exactly because Politico and its sister political bureaus in Washington fetishize more explicit power struggles that involve more concrete outcomes and well-recognized names.

The danger of focusing on games with discrete outcomes of course is that Politico was brazenly wrong about the possibility that the outcome was in jeopardy. The Blue Dog coalition lost half of its members in the election. Heath Shuler got himself some media attention, and positioned himself to run against the House minority in 2012 if he wants to. He never posed a credible threat to win the Minority Leader position, and it was cute of him to try. The 150-43 drubbing he received shows exactly that, not that "Pelosi survived" some sort of serious challenge. The idea that less than a quarter of votes are cast against an incumbent constitutes a "revolt" is simply absurd. By that standard, the American electorate has been in full scale rebellion ever since 1790.

It doesn't surprise me that journalism lacks any sort of explanation of context or serious commitment to explaining the world around the reader, especially in rarefied worlds of federal politics that seem far-removed from voters. It does bother me when media outlets attempt to create branded narratives which would increase their readership. While some alternatives (e.g. pack journalism) are also bad, just making shit up is not a preferable model of journalism. That is exactly what Politico did for the last two weeks, and their naked commitment to their own narrative discredits their editorial staff.

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