‘Horse race’ political journalism

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So election day is November 8 which – it seems from media commentary over the weekend – was totally obvious to political insiders all along. Or had been at least, since they stopped thinking it could be an early election – in which case October 18 had been the screamingly obvious option. Or unless of course…aliens landed and called the whole thing off. Unlikely, but a possibility that some insiders say cannot be ruled out entirely at this time.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be seeing a lot of horse race political journalism, which is defined in the dictionaries as being : “ Media coverage that focuses on poll results and political battles instead of policy issues.” Horse race journalism reaches its peak in election campaigns, but it has chronically infected political coverage. “One reason the substance of policy is not communicated,” the Washington Post’s David Broder once commented, “ is that reporters carry over to their coverage of government the campaign mind-set of horse race journalism. Process stories predominate, and the emphasis is on who is gaining or losing, not on what is being done.”

Well, about 55 days now remain before the voters get to decide the election result. Or, to put that another way, we have some 55 more days of media noise about who is ahead, who is closing fast, who is coming up through the pack, who is surprisingly off the pace, and which one of oh, about 68 niche voting segments may prove decisive in the final sprint to the finish line. Not to mention how the latest polls are showing the race is tightening and the gap is narrowing. Or not. And November 8 will start the whole cycle all over again if any residual doubt remains on election night as to who can form a government.

Journalism that analyses the process of politics rather than its content has recognizable features. Most of them foster the myth that the media has inside knowledge, or reliable predictive power about how the election process will unfold. They/we usually don’t. They/we are usually groping in the dark as mere spectators, not as insiders. We’re guessing, being spun, and are spinning the public in turn – at best on the basis of hand signals from the coaches for Team Labour and Team National, and at worst on sheer bluff and hedging our bets. Some features of horse race journalism you can expect to see a lot more of during the next 55 days

1. Subjunctive forecasting. Those little words ‘ ‘may’ and ‘if’ are the political journalist’s best friends. John Armstrong’s Herald column on Saturday offered both a preview of campaign racecourse conditions – track likely to be ugly and nasty, much dirt expected – and this excellent example of subjunctive forecasting :

Key’s political instincts are solid. But they will tempt him to take some risks. Some may pay off. But he will make mistakes. They won’t matter if they are minor. They will if they are major.

Right, that just about covers the possible options. Those ‘solid’ political instincts of Key’s may lead him to act like a flake, but that won’t matter to the outcome, unless it does. Or unless he is an alien, which is a possibility some insiders say cannot be ruled out entirely at this time.

2. Polls as moral arbiters. Since to the media, the campaign race is the story, opinion polls become a palpable reality that provides a running verdict on success or failure. However, the polls are mute on the reasons for the trends they record, and on how the politicians feel about them. Therefore, the media’s role will be to helpfully flesh out the polls, and cloak the players with moral dimensions in their alleged reactions to them. Eg, ‘Helen Clark, relentless in her drive to win a historic fourth term is becoming desperate in the face of polls that show the reins of power are finally slipping from her grasp..’ etc etc while ‘John Key, basking in the results of polls that show National could govern alone, is already planning beyond election day, yet with a great deal of good humoured humility about the scale of the task before him’ etc etc. Or, to quote from the excellent Armstrong column again :

Labour, with an iron-willed leader who has rallied and refreshed her tiring team, is hell-bent on retaining occupancy of the ministerial suites in the Beehive.

On the other side stands National. There are still questions about its readiness to govern, but not its determination to do so. National has been out of power for nine years. A further three years in Opposition is simply not an option.

National has positioned itself to win. Not only has it rebuilt itself as a true conservative party closer to the thinking of most New Zealanders, rather than a radical party of the right but it also has a leader who carries none of the baggage from the last time National was in government.

The problem is that many of his front-bench colleagues do. That is why Helen Clark intends making this election about “trust”. That suggests hers will be more a negative campaign than a positive one.

Her problem is that her Government has become mired in seemingly endless distractions and seems to have lost focus. That is why John Key is making this election about NZ turning a fresh page with a new Government.

Lets sum that up. Core messages, Labour : Iron-willed leader. Hellbent. Purpose is retaining ministerial suites. Mired. Endless distractions. Lost focus.

Core messages, National : Determination. Rebuilt. True conservative, closer to the thinking of most New Zealanders. Not radical. Baggage exists on National front bench but Labour would be ‘ negative’ if it pointed that out. Key’s purpose is in making New Zealand turn a fresh page. New government.

Yes, just as well we have the seasoned hands at the Herald to guide us towards race day in our little democracy. Thank goodness we’re not dependent on that lot out there in the blogosphere. Experts and media commentators are virtually unanimous in their view that Internet comment while lively, is rife with error and uninformed bias.

3. The Experts Say. To convey the sense of insiderdom and status as founts of special wisdom, the media will tap its expert sources. Very special, extremely savvy sources. So, watch out for : insiders say. or well placed sources say, or an unnamed source close to the party confirms. Often, this means simply the journalist has agreed to be spun by the party machine, for purposes of its own. Don’t get me wrong. Access is necessary for some stories. That’s certainly what a press pass does provide you. It gets you conditional entry to the political locker room, where – unless you’re very sharp – you readily become a conduit for the worldview of the players and their coaches. Staying outside is just as important for the readers, though it is not as highly valued by media managers.

4. The Jump Cut and the Hedged Bet To convey a sense of mastery the media will sometimes make a bold prediction. This is usually a leap in the dark masquerading as insider knowledge. Usually, it has about as much factual underpinning as a bet on red eleven on the roulette wheel at Vegas. Take as an example, last week’s widespread and boldly stated assumption – that Helen Clark would fire Winston Peters on Thursday. Clearly, it was a wrong call – but one premised on the reassuring knowledge that the media cycle spins fast enough to bury the wrong guesses pretty quickly. So, she’ll fire him this week instead – after the Brian Henry testimony on Tuesday at the privileges committee. You can bet on it ! Unless of course, she doesn’t.

This is why the hedged bet is the more common option. Here, a guess will be phrased in terms of multiple possible outcomes. As in, say…”Now that the election date has been announced, John Key will come under increasing pressure this week to announce National’s core policies – unless he chooses to maximise their impact by holding back the policy package until the last possible minute, thus frustrating Labour’s ability to upstage them on the details’ etc etc The core talent required here is the ability to state both one thing and its exact opposite as entirely possible outcomes, without letting the public realize they’ve been left in the starting blocks.

You want a classic hedged bet on the factors that could impinge on the election ? New Zealand goes to the polls on Saturday November 8, and the US elections are on Tuesday, November 4, or Wednesday, our time. This will either make a difference, or it won’t. The reasoning being. .Labour’s choice of a November election date will give them time to expose National’s options to scrutiny – but in that respect, their chances for a strong finish on election day could be thwarted if public attention gets distracted during that crucial last week by the US election. Problem being, no one knows if the extent of US election coverage will make a rat’s bit of difference to the process in New Zealand. It might, or it might not. No one really has a clue.

Moreover, if Barack Obama wins, will that be good for John Key – his self declared doppelganger in the South Pacific – and for Key’s message of change ? Or will it be good for the centre left here, and shore up their claim to be the sane and capable gatekeepers of the national interest vis a vis the global economy? Ditto, would a McCain victory be a signal that it’s the time for conservatives to triumph ? Or would it be a signal that voters prefer to stick with an unpopular but reliable administration, especially when the economic times are uncertain ? Horse race journalism is really this kind of guesswork on a mousewheel, masquerading as wisdom

There is another option, of course. The media could focus on issues. It could evaluate the policy outcomes, and put the media’s predictive powers to work on analyzing who will benefit, and who will lose if particular policies are followed. Here ( I hope) is an example. Unfortunately, TAKE magazine – which is the quarterly journal of the Screen Directors Guild is not available online. But in its September issue it carries an interview I did in mid August with Dr Jonathan Coleman, National’s broadcasting spokesperson.

As we already know, National plans to scrap TVNZ’s , social charter obligations and will put the charter money into the general pot of programme finance available through New Zealand On Air. A National government will expect TVNZ to function as a purely economic, dividend- maximising enterprise in future. Here’s a sample from the TAKE interview,as to what National has in mind :

“ The issue that we have got in New Zealand is we don’t have a debt problem,” Coleman says, “ we have an asset problem. TVNZ is an asset. The value has been way diminished over the last nine years. We want to see it performing far better.”

Coleman spells it out : “ I mean, [TVNZ] made $375 million of revenue last year, and ended up making a $4 million loss. [TVNZ] could be returning a far greater dividend, as well as producing some great television. So, the original formula was a nine per cent dividend. [Therefore] it should be returning about $33 million to the taxpayer, which would pay for a heck of a lot of other stuff that government wants to do.”

Doesn’t this mean that the dual mandate endures – in that a National government wants to treat TVNZ as a cash cow, while still expecting quality programmes from it ? Not quite. “ Well, we’re not putting any requirements regarding programmes on it at all. And we’re being open and honest about it…We just want TVNZ to get on, and be profitable. And I’m sure they will do. They did a great job for 30 years before the charter.”

In other words, National will expect TVNZ to return to its commercial excesses of the 1990s. It will expect a much higher return on this ( and other?) asset(s). Logically, this will force TVNZ to act even more commercially than it did during the 1990s, in order to compensate for the fragmentation of the television audience since TVNZ’s golden decade.

And why is this pressure being exerted on TVNZ ? In order to shore up government revenues for – among other things – the tax cuts National will otherwise be straining to afford. Nice to know what “turning a fresh page’ in government will really entail.