The incredible shallowness of the media's political analysis

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

It's bad enough that the media sacrifice serious coverage of complex issues in favor of political analysis and horse-race journalism. What's worse is that their political analysis is just as shallow as their explanations of policy details.

For a group of people who get paid to cover politics (and who regularly forgo serious policy coverage in favor of political analysis), reporters can be remarkably shallow -- inept, even -- in their assessments.

For example, we need only to look back at Mark Halperin's 2006 declaration that the Democrats should be "scared to death about November's elections" or The Note's insistence that Iraq looked like a "2006 political winner for the Republican Party" or Howard Fineman's late-2005 column arguing that the Democrats had reason to be gloomy because, unlike the GOP, they lacked "stars" (Mr. Fineman, meet Mr. Obama). Or ABC's Claire Shipman's credulous statement just weeks before the GOP's crushing defeat in the 2006 elections that "political Svengali" Karl Rove had presented "a compelling scenario" for the Republicans to hold onto Congress.

And who could forget Chuck Todd's 2006 prediction that "if Democrats get control of Congress, President Bush's approval rating will be over 50 percent by the Fourth of July next year"? In fact, Bush's approval rating was barely over 30 percent by July of 2007.

You may have noticed a pattern in these examples: The media's fundamental belief that America is a center-right nation leads them to overestimate the political peril for progressives and progressive policies.

So it should come as no surprise that much of the media analysis following Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown's victory in Tuesday night's special election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat has amounted to little more than a one-sided effort to see how many different ways one can say that progressives shouldn't pursue progressive policies.

At the most basic level, there was the immediate -- and often ham-handed -- attempt to insist that Tuesday's election was a repudiation of health care reform.

Now, there are some glaring problems with that assertion. Like a Rasmussen Reports election-night poll that found that people who voted for Democratic candidate Martha Coakley were more likely than those who voted for Brown to say that health care was the most important issue to them. And the fact that Massachusetts already has universal health care. And the fact that Brown himself said the election was not a referendum on health care. And the fact that Brown said in his ads: "I believe all Americans deserve health care coverage."

Still, many journalists were deeply committed to the idea that Massachusetts voters (suddenly, according to the punditocracy, speaking on behalf of America) had rejected health care reform, and they went about trying to find evidence -- any evidence -- to fit that conclusion. The biggest reach may have come on MSNBC yesterday morning, where anchor Savannah Guthrie seemed to think the fact that Brown signed his autograph with the number 41 -- he will be the 41st Republican senator, giving the GOP the ability to sustain filibusters all by themselves -- was a smoking gun.

That's right: Brown, who said "all Americans deserve health care coverage" and said the election was not a referendum on health care, signed his name with a 41 at the end, so Massachusetts voters must have been rejecting health care reform! That's about as lame an explanation as you could possibly think of, but Guthrie's colleague Chris Matthews peddled it later that day, too.

Most important: What does it actually mean if the election was a "referendum" on health care? What does that say about what Democrats have done for the past year, and what they should do over the next? The answers aren't as simple as much of the media coverage would suggest.

Actually, the shallowness of the media's political analysis this week wasn't limited to health care; it showed in their insistence that President Obama and the Democrats were guilty of "overreaching" on a wide range of issues. Time ran an article headlined "Five Ways Obama Went Wrong" that was typical of the establishment media's reaction to recent events. Time's "five ways" included:

  • The challenges were just too big for any one man.
  • Crises are not opportunities; they are just crises.
  • The Obama mandate was not what it seemed.
  • Health care is just too hard.
  • Americans just don't like government.

Note that all five really boil down to the same thing: Obama tried to do too much.

Now, it's possible that's true. But there are other assessments that are at least as plausible.

For example: The stimulus package passed by the Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama last year was significantly smaller than it should have been, according to many economists -- and a sizable chunk of it was devoted to tax cuts included in part in a (largely unsuccessful) effort to win support from conservatives. Had that package been much larger and more focused on things that would provide more immediate stimulus, it's possible the economy would have shown greater improvement over the past year. And that would have almost certainly resulted in a political environment that is more favorable to the Democrats.

So it isn't difficult to conclude that the problem wasn't an attempt to do too much; it was that not enough was done. Conversely, what if less had been done? Would the economy be any better? Probably not. Would Democrats have avoided Republican attacks over runaway spending had they limited the bill to a mere $400 billion? Of course not. And so the Democrats' political fortunes would not be better, either.

The same applies to suggestions that Democrats tried to do too much with health care. Maybe they did -- or maybe the problem isn't that they tried to do too much, but that they did it too slowly, and that they'd be better off had they quickly slammed bold legislation through Congress last summer and moved on.

Again, let's look at the implications of the assumptions underlying the "overreached" theme. What if Democrats had pursued a health care that was half as ambitious as the Senate bill, with the same legislative strategy for getting it through Congress? Would that have convinced conservatives not to lie about it, or Republicans not to oppose it? Of course not. Would opponents still brand it a "government takeover of health care"? Of course. Would the media have done a better job of informing and educating the public about what the bill would actually do? Nope. So, again: How would their situation be any better?

Finally, even if the media consensus that Democrats overreached is correct, what does that say about what they should do going forward? The implication tends to be that they should tack sharply to the right and scale back their agenda. But if they do that, they're still going to get (falsely) hit for supporting a "massive government takeover of health care" -- that toothpaste has left the tube, and there's no putting it back in -- and for massive government spending. And they won't be able to do much to repair the economy if they're tacking rightward and scaling back their agenda. So they would risk facing a lousy economy and negative perceptions of their handling of health care and not having much to show for any of it. Is that really the best they can hope for? Maybe it is. But -- pretty obviously -- it might not be. It might be that they'd be better off quickly passing health care and a second stimulus, for example, and running on those accomplishments, since they're already paying the price for them.

To be clear: I'm not offering political advice here. Properly answering these questions requires far greater depth of study than is the scope of this column. My point is simply to demonstrate the shocking shallowness of the "political analysis" mainstream political reporters provide. It pretty much boils down to this: Democrats are unpopular and losing support from independents, therefore they were too liberal and tried to do too much, therefore they should run to the right and do much less.

Now, there are times when those are the correct conclusions. This may even be one of them. But that isn't actual analysis. Those are assumptions. Those are cocktail party platitudes. How can I say those could be the correct conclusions and that they are simply assumptions? Two reasons: First, those are almost always the media's conclusions. Second, they don't show their work. They don't address the questions I've raised: Things like: OK, if Democrats did too much, what would have happened had they done less? What would the political state of play be had the stimulus package and health care bill been half as large? If you don't work through these things, you aren't really "analyzing" anything -- you're guessing.

Instead, they rely on assumptions and jump to conclusions. (Here's where a conservative would likely argue that the same thing happens when Republicans lose: the media assume it's because they were too conservative. Guess what? I agree that those assessments are often based on flawed analysis. Again: My focus here is the quality of the analysis more than the correctness of the conclusions.)

One of those assumptions -- one that is obviously incorrect and that I'm confident none of them would consciously adopt -- is that the electorate consists of people scattered along an ideological spectrum, and that their position on that spectrum is static, and that they respond to legislative efforts based solely on how those efforts relate to their own position on the spectrum.

Here's an example: Politico's Ben Smith suggested yesterday that the position that the Democrats' problem was an excess of caution is incompatible with the position that the Democrats' problem is that independents are turning away from them. But those two things are only incompatible if you think "independents" are people who exist smack in the middle of the spectrum, between liberals and conservatives, and their political affections belong to whichever party pursues policies that are closest to their own ideological leanings. If, however, you think independents would be happy as clams if a significantly larger stimulus package last year had improved the economy, the two notions aren't even remotely incompatible.

Another: The silly notion that supporting a bill that costs $800 billion opens a politician up to attacks for reckless spending, but supporting a bill that costs $400 billion wouldn't. This is simply crazy. I can't believe anybody really thinks that conservatives wouldn't be able (or willing) to portray even $200 billion as too much money, if that was the price tag attached to health care reform, or to an economic stimulus package. It's $200 billion! And yet, you hear it all the time: The price tag is just so high, they're opening themselves up to attack. The reality is that numbers like $200 billion and $800 billion and $1.2 trillion don't really mean much to people -- and mean even less out of context, which is how they are almost always discussed. They all sound like -- or can easily be made to sound like -- a ton of money.

Which leads to the media's tendency to forget that effective policy makes for good politics. Spend $1 trillion on a stimulus package that improves the economy, and people are going to like you more than if you had spent $200 billion on one that didn't. But when they're covering debate over a stimulus package, the question of how well it will work tends to be missing from media discussions of whether people will think it's too expensive. And take a look at that Time assessment of Obama and the Democrats' political troubles, or at Politico's version: Neither contains much more than a few passing references to the concept that political and policy success are intertwined.

None of this would matter much, were it not for the fact that the news media are not merely observers of the political process, but active (which is not necessarily to say willing) participants in it. When they say over and over that something is too big, too expensive, too liberal, people -- politicians and voters alike -- tend to internalize that critique and adjust their behavior. And so the media have a distorting effect on political and public policy debates not merely by doing a lousy job of covering policy, but by doing a lousy job of the "political analysis" for which they all too often abandon coverage of policy.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.

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