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Let's end horse race political coverage

Supporters attend a primary election night event for J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, at Duke Energy Convention Center on May 3, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Supporters attend a primary election night event for J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, at Duke Energy Convention Center on May 3, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“[Women are] not going to understand [missile] throw-weights or what is happening in Afghanistan or what is happening in human rights. Some women will, but most women–believe me, your readers for the most part if you took a poll – would rather read the human interest stuff.”

Having ingested his foot in 1985, Don Regan, President Reagan’s chief of staff, apologized and kept his job, until he crossed a woman who cared about more than the human interest stuff.

Nancy Reagan, blaming the aide for bungling her husband’s political fortunes, greased Regan’s retirement to Virginia to paint landscapes.

Today, in the face of continuing misogyny, women running for office are apt to stress issues to prove their credibility. (Marjorie Taylor Greene missed that memo.)

This midterms year, when the parties are night and day, or Jekyll and Hyde, on existential threats — to the planet (climate change), to democracy (from you-know-who) — Regan, were he alive, would find a fatter target in campaign reporters for the slight-intellects charge.

I always thought reporters playing the horses, as it were, saddled us with boring, uninformative trivia. But a burgeoning body of studies suggests worse ...

“Horse race” coverage — who’s up, in polls or donations, and candidates’ strategizing to procure those blessings — rivals Gregorian chants as an enduring ritual. The late, veteran journalist Jack Germond damned his brethren for trivializing politics; he and his coauthor titled their book about the interminable 1984 presidential race "Wake Us When It’s Over." I always thought reporters playing the horses, as it were, saddled us with boring, uninformative trivia. But a burgeoning body of studies suggests worse: Fixating on popularity and tactics hurts female candidates, undermines respect for our already-shaky democratic process, and helped give us Donald Trump.

Other than that, it’s a great system.

Partisan fakery on social media poses a real and recognized danger. But indolent MSM cripples democracy, too, as Harvard’s Shorenstein Center documents in its round-up of relevant research:

Horse race coverage abets misogynists. California State University political scientist Meredith Conroy summarizes her findings of what happens when women candidates of substance try to break through:

If the election coverage neglects the issues, women may miss out on the opportunity to assuage fears about their perceived incompetency. … An overemphasis on personality and appearance is detrimental to women, as it further delegitimizes their place in the political realm, more so than for men, whose negative traits are still often masculine and thus still relevant to politics.

For a current example, check Massachusetts’s lieutenant governor’s race, in which the mayor of Salem labors to shift attention off a male competitor’s bankroll to her government experience. From Trump voters who back a credibly accused predator to online snakes for Bernie Sanders who spat venom about Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, we endure enough outright women-haters. They don’t need help from horse-race handmaidens.

Horse-race journalism helped stick us with four years of that accused predator. Two Harvard Kennedy School papers studied coverage of Trump before and during the 2016 primaries. One found that positive media attention — about a xenophobic, over-sexed and under-credentialed man who was then bottom-feeding in polls — helped gas his rise to frontrunner.

Blame for his surge falls mostly on a racist’s appeal to more fearful white voters than anyone, save perhaps Americans of color, thought existed. But Trump trumpeted racism as had no politician who wasn’t a segregationist or Klansman, and “journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational — the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention,” Shorenstein said. “Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee.”

To my Catholic ears, those words should make penitents of journalists.

The horse race is bad for democracy. That would be true if journalistic handicappers’ only waste product had been coverage that assisted the rise of an authoritarian who incited insurrection. But multiple studies confirm that their journalism has another analogy to waste: It fertilizes weeds of voter cynicism and abstention.

Reported one researcher, “This coverage leads to a specific public perception of politics that is dominated by a focus on political actors’ motivations for gaining power rather than their substantive concerns for the common good.” He also found issues-less journalism leaves voters less informed. (Duh.)

Another scholar found that “probabilistic forecasting” — calling who’s up and who’s down based on aggregated polls — ”discourages voting, likely because people often decide to skip voting when their candidate has a very high chance of winning or losing.” (Another duh.)

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In fairness, many reflexive media bashers knowledgeable about current events will admit their debt, if they're honest, to the creme of journalism. Moreover, last week's ecstasy/hysteria over the Supreme Court majority's musings about overturning abortion rights show the necessity, sometimes, of highlighting the politics of public affairs.

Years of discarded reform promises from scribes and broadcasters make clear that the supply side won’t address this problem. We must rely on demand side tweaks ...

To wit: Whatever your stance on abortion, there's no denying that power politics by Senate Republicans who would consider only a Republican president's nominees, secured the Court's critical mass for killing Roe v. Wade. That power play, added to party leaders' tortured somersaults over the insurrection (Trump should resign! Wait, I never said that! Oh, it's recorded ...) reveal that the sole object of the conservative party is the conservation of its power. That's a vital topic for journalistic coverage and voters' consideration, beyond the merits of pro-life versus pro-choice — or Ukraine, inflation, and anything else.

Nevertheless, the preponderance of evidence makes indisputable the preponderance of fluffernutter reporting in horse-race coverage. Years of discarded reform promises from scribes and broadcasters make clear that the supply side won’t address this problem. We must rely on demand side tweaks, starting with media literacy courses in schools, eventuating, one hopes, in more judicious news consumers.

An indictment or two wouldn’t hurt, either.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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