If the surprise results in New Hampshire had an unanticipated benefit, it is this: they exposed the myth, once and for all, that the Internet has made political reporting and analysis far better than it once was.
Alas, the opposite is true.
After all, thousands of reporters were scouring New Hampshire. Tens of thousands more (myself included) were opining on the Internet. Not one that I can find came even close to reporting that Hillary Clinton had a chance to win.
It’s true the polls indicated otherwise. But an obsession with the latest polling information is, in itself, one of the things that’s happened to political reporting in the age of the Internet and cable news.
Internet boosters have exaggerated the assets of the medium — more reporting, better reporting, more democratic reporting, accessible around the clock — in much the same way that cable supporters did when when CNN and its sister channels arrived on the scene about two decades ago. In a country that’s bamboozled by novelty, claims in support of a new technology or invention will almost always be extravagant.
The problem is that there isn’t really enough news to go around in this 24-hour, up-to-the-minute cycle. And, sadly, there aren’t enough astute thinkers to go around, either — not than anyone can be that clever all the time.
More media, more problems
One obstacle for these thinkers is the same one that hindered writers when television first arrived on the scene in the 1950s. “Back in the old days,” once noted Bob Hope on the differences between writing for TV and writing for a comedy stage show, “you would do one sketch for five years. But if you use that sketch on TV, it’s used up in one night.” Blogging burns up good material very quickly, meaning that even the best run out and start writing, well, second-rate stuff. (And that’s on their good days.)
With a deficit of real news, the result, as Daniel Boorstin astutely wrote in The Image almost a half-century ago, is that pundits and opiners start making it up, so they have something to write about. This year, we have been blessed, for example, with constant candidate debates that, in real terms, have been watched by virtually no one but those directly involved with the process. Of course, performance in a debate has absolutely no correlation with performance in office, anyway (an idea that has seemingly been lost). But the smaller point is that, this year, it has also had little to do with how candidates do at the ballot box, either.
That still hasn’t stopped the Internet and cable-TV pundits (myself included!) from compulsively grading each one. The process has gotten so out of hand that, after most debates, Fox News now features a focus group of potential voters — each of whom is “wired up” to a machine that looks suspiciously like something out of shock therapy so that he or she can watch the debate and grade it with others. It’s no surprise that these “scientifically chosen” groups have managed to do everything but identify the eventual primary or caucus winner down the road. Yet the pundits are still treating the results of these ludicrous exercises as something worthy of serious reflection.
In their search for anything to write about, Internet commentators also write obsessively about polls, which, besides being zealously inaccurate (as we’ve once again discovered), are only a picture of a moment of time that is, of course, not the one that counts on Election Day. These polls, Boorstin noted, are also a kind of pseudo-event, “forced into existence for the primary purpose of being reported.”
With little real news being generated, blogging space and cable-news time are usually filled with speculation and mediocre analysis. And that, in turn, has affected mainstream political reporting, since print journalists read (and write) blogs and assume others do too (even if the truth is that the average voter hasn’t a clue as to what’s transpiring in the electronic universe). Another unanticipated result is that the tendency for the political press to write as a pack has become more pronounced, not less, as one writer’s uninformed opinion becomes conventional wisdom in a matter of minutes, not days, in this new electronic echo chamber.
Case in point, again, was the lead-up to New Hampshire.
Lest we forget, it’s also the case that the Internet is still an overwhelmingly male domain. Most of the pundits are male; so, too, are most Web and blog readers. The result is a universe heavy on male-sports-combat imagery and analysis with the constant use of words such as “battle,” “destroyed,” “fight,” or “go on offense” — and reader rejoinders that rarely rise above the verbal equivalent of towel-snapping. And pundits wonder why the public is alienated from politics as usual (or why some voters may think Clinton is getting a raw deal)?