Martin Kettle spills the beans on journalists coverage of the presidential primaries. They have, it says, been “plain wrong” and Clinton’s win in New Hampshire was “gloriously humiliating” for a press pack “in denial about the facts because the facts did not suit the narrative that so many had scripted in advance.”
This raises a wider issue about the nature of journalism. Many journalists fail to distinguish between what’s important and what’s interesting. They seem to think being present at a Momentous Period in History justifies the abandonment of what meagre powers of analysis they possess; I‘m thinking in particular of Jim Naughtie‘s “reports“ on the Today programme which reach heights of vacuous pomposity hitherto unscaled even by him*.
Reports of the Presidential election (at least insofar as I’ve seen in the UK) describe it as a set of marketing campaigns or beauty contests. The unquestioned presumption is that such campaigns, and the idle punditry they inspire, are significant in themselves and justify acres of newsprint and airtime even if one has nothing useful to say - and nothing to add to what you could learn from the betting. The upshot is that genuinely interesting questions go unanswered, for example:
What role, if any, is class playing in this campaign? Mike Huckabee won much support when he told Jay Leno that Americans want a president "like the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off." Doesn’t such populism show - contrary to British stereotype - that the Democrat-Republican, left-right and rich-poor divides are three different things?
What, if anything, does the popularity of Barack Obama tell us about the status of black Americans?
What are the hard policy differences between Obama and Clinton? How far do they matter, given the low probability of campaign statements being translated fully into policy?
How far is it possible to tell from a candidate’s campaign how s/he’ll perform in office? What precise aspects of the campaign have actual predictive power?
What precisely is the production function linking campaign spending to votes? Does this function display diminishing returns, with voters repelled by expensive campaigns?
What does it tell us that a creationist can be a plausible candidate; he couldn‘t be in Europe? How can the most technically advanced civilization in history sustain such superstition?
There’s much that’s interesting about this campaign, not least for the light it sheds onto American society. But we’re not reading it in the press.
* The greatest living Englishman nailed Naughtie: “I woke up this morning, had a shave, listened to Jim Naughtie ask a question, had another shave…”