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Monday, November 12, 2012

The Other Way the Media Got the Election Wrong

The hackiness of much of the American punditry was exposed by last week's election results. Both Dick Morris and George Will predicted a Romney landslide. But it was Dan Rather who demonstrated the talking heads' weakness best, by citing his "gut" in predicting "a good day for Romney." Never has it been so clear that a lot of news personalities have no idea what the hell they're talking about and are just making it up as they go along -- or worse, are spinning what they do know to reflect their biases.

But calling a Romney landslide, based on absolutely nothing but ideological optimism and wishful thinking, wasn't the only way to make a bad call on election night. The idea of a popular vote/electoral college vote split -- a la 2000 -- was a lot more prevalent in the media. Just about every news outlet going ran the story at one point. And just every news outlet going was just making up news.

Yes, an electoral college/popular vote split was possible, mostly by virtue of not being impossible. But Nate Silver's last forecast before the election gave that result a 5.3% possibility. There's a difference between a real possibility and a realistic possibility. When there's a 94.7% chance that your prediction is going to be wrong, you aren't courting the realistic.


In fact, the electoral college/popular vote split prediction was just as ridiculous as predicting a Romney win. More so, in fact, since Silver gave Romney a 9.1% chance of winning. The predictions of Dick Morris, George Will, Dan Rather, Newt Gingrich, et al. were actually less absurd than this one.

So why would so many news sources push this possibility? The answer is simple. Money. Eyes on pages and eyes on screens. The possibility of a replay of 2000, complete with the discussion of hanging chads, overvotes, undervotes, and the intent of the voter, presents a lot to like for a news editor interested in ad revenue. There is no doubt it's exciting, but there's more to it than that. It's familiar and that gives the reader/viewer/consumer the opportunity to feel smart and well-informed. Most of the audience has been through this before. They can feel like experts on this stuff -- and people like to feel knowledgeable. They like to be able to discuss these issues with some level of confidence.

Which is fine. In fact, it's great. But shouldn't the media be educating people about real possibilities and real issues that may arise, rather than lazily falling back on things the consumer already knows? If there's virtually no chance of a electoral college/popular vote split, there's no realistic reason to rehash how that scenario plays out.

Combined with the failed predictions of Romney victory, the stories of an electoral college/popular vote split show just how badly our media got pretty much everything wrong. Those of us who knew who to listen to and who to ignore weren't at all surprised by election night, while those who didn't found themselves terribly misinformed of the real possibilities. We shouldn't have to know who are the real wonks and who are the hacks -- the hacks should be thrown out of the punditry club so there's no danger of their infecting the voting populace with stupid. They literally serve no purpose other than to propagandize for their candidates and ideologies.

We need fact-based reporting, not gut-based BS spouting. The follow up to every pundit's declaration of anything should be, "Can you prove that?" It was the fact-based forecasts grounded in actually numbers that did the best and it was the punditry's forecasts based on their feelings that were the worst. And the very rock-bottom worst were the rightwing hacks. And, on that side of the aisle, the rightwing hacks are actually running the show.

"The problem with the Republican leaders is that they’re cowards, not that they’re fundamentally mistaken," former Bush speechwriter David Frum said recently on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "The real locus of the problem is the Republican activist base and the Republican donor base. They went apocalyptic over the past four years, and that was exploited by a lot of people in the conservative world. I won’t soon forget the lupine smile that played over the head of one major conservative institution when he told me that our donors think the apocalypse has arrived, that Republicans have been fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex."

If the right wants to keep listening to their hacks, they should go ahead and do that. It's what's brought them to this sorry place, but if that's what they want to do, that's what they should do. But there's no reason anyone who's not tuned into wingnut talk radio or Fox News should be exposed to the likes of George Will or Karl Rove. It's become clear that they serve no purpose other than their own and do not operate with the public good in mind.

Put the hacks into hack time and the news into news time and never, ever, ever mix the two again. It's poisonous to our understanding of the world and it's actually hurting our politics.


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