It’s too easy to criticize the political press. So easy that when something goes wrong with one’s candidate or cause, it’s typically the press that gets the blame. Fish in a barrel, reporters are.

I don’t much like this game, in part because I used to cover politics for big-city newspapers. I know and admire many great political writers. I wish sometimes I were still part of the profession.

But Matt Taibbi’s take-down of the pundit response to the first presidential debate raises important questions. I agree that the press (speaking too generally) failed in its post-debate coverage. I want to explore some reasons for the failure. Taibbi writes:

Romney’s performance was better than Obama’s, but only if you throw out criteria like “wasn’t 100% full of shit from the opening bell” and “made an actual attempt to explain who he is and what his plans are.” Unfortunately, that is good enough for our news media, which drools over the gamesmanship aspects of these debates, because it loves candidates who sink their teeth into the horse-race nonsense that they think validates their professional lives.

It’s undeniable that the media “drools over the gamesmanship aspects.” But why? I can, I think, shed a little light on that by way of confession.

Many years ago I left journalism for political consulting. These are or should be two very different professions. Political consultants are gamblers and hustlers. Actually, to extend the gaming metaphor, they are more like the gambling House. Reporters are the marks.

When covering politics, the apparent sophistication of consultants and other political players becomes a social-psychological challenge for reporters. Consultants operate the craps table. Some reporters are a little intimidated because they lack knowledge of the odds, the rules, etc. Feeling themselves less sophisticated, they want to be like the table masters. Therein lies the problem.

The emotional, “be-part-of-the-in-crowd” desire to appear as cynically sophisticated as political consultants can lead journalists to value the manipulative arts more than the truth. Reporters praise rather than criticize the frequent deceptions and dodges of political campaigns. We saw the consequences of this in the post-debate press coverage. Romney lied from start to finish. Obama’s failures were stylistic, not substantive. Reporters, wanting to appear as sophisticated as the gaming table masters, credit Romney for smart tactics and focus upon Obama’s tactical, stylistic stumbles.

Like I said, I can confess my own journalistic failures as evidence of the phenomena. I began serious coverage of politics after a couple of years covering the Texas prison system. I had to learn the ins and outs of politics, and I often felt a little behind the curve. I have to admit this was more social than professional pressure. I wanted the table masters to accept me as a peer in their casino. I wanted them to acknowledge my “sophistication,” which, of course, would be measured more in their terms not the terms of journalism.

The rise of the cable nets has complicated all this as consultants sit side-by-side with journalists to discuss political events. It’s a kind of collusion. Two professions that should be radically different in means and ends blend into the general category of media punditry.

In the post-truth era, it’s considered naïve to expect or demand honesty from political campaigns. I’m afraid some journalists feel the same kind of pressure I felt years ago as a young reporter. So, style is valued over substance, political tricks over truth-telling, horse-race reporting over policy consequences.
One way reporters try to escape the trap without appearing unsophisticated is to retreat to superficial “he said, she-said” reporting. It’s risk-free, but does little to help audiences understand what’s really going on. The lie and the truth become equivalent currencies. And, journalists don’t look critically at themselves  and their habits because that would be wimpy and unsophisticated in the casino of American politics.

One bad consequence of this lack of self-knowledge is that pundits produce results they then cover as independent of their involvement. For instance, in 2008 when Sarah Palin was first introduced, pundits spent hours praising her spunk and Alaskan authenticity. Then they reported that Americans liked her spunk and Alaskan authenticity as if the pundits themselves hadn’t planted the thoughts in the minds of their audience.

Lethargic as President Obama appeared in the first debate, I suspect that without all the hyper and shrill pundit criticism of him that the event would have been a wash with voters. Romney’s fast-talking salesmanship was at least as off-putting as Obama’s apparent passivity. Obama made no newsworthy gaffs, nothing with any legs.

Worse, however, was burying actual news of Romney’s lies with “sophisticated” critiques of Obama’s performance. Obama and his team should have seen this coming and prepared the president with at least one hard-hitting attack on Romney for lying. It might have changed the post-debate coverage.

Reporters need to remind themselves that consultants, just like the gambling House, exploit their very human desires to be members of the Club Sophisticated. Many have learned the lesson. Others are just praiseworthy independent cusses who don’t want to belong to any club that would have them. These types put the free in free press.

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith