THE SEVEN DEADLY STUPIDITIES OF 2015 POLITICAL COVERAGE
Congratulations on having almost survived what surely has been one of the most perfectly stupid years in political journalism.
There are a lot of reasons that our political process is such a goat roping – particularly the perverse incentives for failure for both parties – but high on the list is our broken political press.
This is not to say that there was some perfect past when all was just and good and three networks, two newspapers and one magazine ruled the world. Far, far from it. But the coverage this year has been a particularly airless tomb as it relates to good judgment, fair-mindedness, restraint and insight.
We know the excuses: splintering media, newsroom layoffs, distracted audiences. Yep, yep, yep. But a lot of our problems relate purely to a lack of imagination and hard work.
One particular bit of bah-humbuggery: three tweets are not a story. Once, reporters had to call people on the telephone or even, heaven forfend, go places in order to get information. In time, the fax machine started dropping story ideas and statements into our laps. That electronic dependency deepened a decade ago when cut-and-pasteable emails started populating our inboxes.
But now, Twitter feeds provide ongoing press conferences in Crazytown. It is a ruthlessly efficient outrage generation machine. A reporter tweets something about Candidate A. Candidate B tweets his or her indignation, followed by candidates C through Z, who are hoping to get in on the pig pile. A pundit or two spout off and, poof, a story is had.
The secret with this kind of umbrage generation is to make sure you file your copy before the obvious and inevitable clarification is made. Then you can just surf your way through the billowing waves of manufactured outrage until you find the next whitecap to ride to Clickbait Beach.
That’s not to say that there isn’t more good political journalism being done now than ever before. There absolutely is. We are blessed by what would be generations worth of writers, analysts and reporters and rely on them daily. Aside from the very best team in politics here at the Fox News Channel, there are many who did great things in 2015.
An incomplete list, in no particular order, includes Molly Ball, David Drucker, Tom Bevan, the team at FiveThirtyEight, Matthew Continetti, Amy Chozick, Mollie Hemingway, Steve Kornacki, Daniel Halper, Emily Schultheis, Peggy Noonan (as always), Jonathan Karl and, if only for his brave work to call attention to the heartbreak of elephant musth, Charles Hurt.
To all those inadvertently omitted, our sincere apologies. For those intentionally excluded, look at the upside: You now have another potential umbrage tweet!
With that, we give you the seven stupidest moments of political coverage in 2015.
Ruh-roh, Raggy - Did you cringe when you saw the pack of reporters chase Hillary Clinton’s “Scooby” van? Did you wince when her stop at a fast food restaurant for burrito bowl was news? Did your mouth drop when her campaign got a do-over on the botched announcement? Then you, like many, were not prepared for the way in which celebrity-style coverage had subsumed political coverage in the Obama era. Clinton’s fame, fortune, fancy friends and family proved irresistible for reporters, even when there was no shortage of real news about her and her candidacy to report. Speaking of which…
Trump towers - In the days after his call for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States, Clinton’s Republican counterpart got an average of 25 times more media mentions than all of his primary challengers combined. News outlets aren’t obliged to give equal coverage to candidates regardless of their viability, but the degree to which Trump’s celebrity has shaped coverage of the 2016 race will go down as a particularly rank irresponsibility. Trump trolls the press then the press trolls its readers and viewers. And when the trumptation is over, we are left with little more than, at best, a deeper understanding of Yiddish idiom.
Graphic evidence - The same political press that has delighted in repeating Trump’s shock-jock comments was strangely prim when it came to undercover videos about America’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood. The same network newscasts that found plenty of time to talk about Der Trumpen Schlongen found no time to cover Planned Parenthood executives discussing ways to maximize the market price for the bodies of aborted babies. Ironically, when the press looked to bust Carly Fiorina for conflating two disturbing parts of the videos in a debate answer, the news blackout largely denied them the chance.
Sure things - Political prognostication is a tricky business, especially this chaotic cycle. Trust us, we know. But aside from not foreseeing the catastrophic failures of Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, the 2016 stakes have been notable for a couple of other punditry misfires. First, Rand Paul. The hype that surrounded his candidacy reflected not just a deep misunderstanding of the GOP electorate, but a reflection of bias. Paul was the kind of candidate that many reporters wanted: intellectual, dovish, interested in bipartisanship and eager to tag his own party for neglecting minority voters. The other, Mitt Romney. Despite no evidence of a yearning for a third run from anyone outside of Romney’s previous donors and staff, news consumers have been subjected to one large and several small instances of Romney froth.
McCarthyite, amirite? - Despite the fond wishes of Washington reporters, Hill hearings are usually boring. Watergate live-tweeted? Snore. Estes Kefauver as a Vine? Lame. So when Hillary Clinton came to testify about Benghazi and related issues, there was no way expectations would be met. Despite some actually new revelations, the collective conclusion was all on style points. And guess who won on that? The dozen nobody Republican congressmen asking questions or the famous Democrat answering them? Even before the day was done, the questioning was deemed McCarthyism. Gotcha.
Misunderestimated - It’s pretty safe to say that 2015 saw the worst primary debate of the modern era. CNBC’s effort was worse than some prior howlers in the sense that the disaster was thoroughgoing, rather than isolated. What biased debate moderators don’t understand is that slated questions are the easiest for Republicans to answer. GOP voters hate the press and Republicans candidates are smart enough to hit towering home runs on what in baseball could only be called “meat.” A cousin to this flaw can be found in doing things like, oh, maybe depicting a Hispanic candidate’s children as monkeys or writing a story obsessing about another candidate’s traffic tickets. Rather than hurting the target, it only helps. Which brings us to…
By fall… No wait… By Thanksgiving… Um… By Christmas… How about by Iowa? - For a large swatch of the Republican electorate, there is little that could be as fun as doing whatever the press and your party’s establishment tells you. This is best described as the Palin Effect. When the press unfairly maligned Sarah Palin in 2008, Republicans rallied to her side. In time, many began to see her in a more complete light. But for a big chunk of Republicans, Palin was still their woman. The more the media howls about Trump’s lack of politesse or his insults or, particularly, his hard words about Islam and foreigners, the more it rallies his supporters. But even so, we have heard again and again about “the beginning of the end” for Trump, as if this were the Democratic nominating process. The same dumbfounded reporters are unaware that they are the ones applying his Teflon coating.
[Ed. Note: Whatever damage has been done to journalism in 2015, Fox News First, at least will do no further harm this year. Thank you, dear readers – now more than a quarter million in number – for your patience, your good humor, your insights, your prayers and even your corrections. I hope that you have a wonderful Christmas, if that’s your bag, and a very happy New Year. We will be back on duty Jan. 4. You’d better rest up, since at that point we will be exactly 28 days to Iowa, 36 days to New Hampshire, 47 days to South Carolina… On behalf of my colleagues Sally Persons, Mike Maltas and the rest of the Washington Bureau of the Fox News Channel, glad tidings to you and the ones you love.]
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. Want FOX News First in your inbox every day? Sign up here.