In Picking The Victors, Media Get Another Drubbing

Mis-predicting the New Hampshire primary: Monday's New York Post had Hillary Clinton down, and Newsweek was glued to Barack Obama.
Mis-predicting the New Hampshire primary: Monday's New York Post had Hillary Clinton down, and Newsweek was glued to Barack Obama. (New York Post)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Tom Brokaw, like virtually everyone on television, went on the air Tuesday night expecting Hillary Clinton to get whipped in New Hampshire.

"I was buying into all the conventional wisdom as well," says the former NBC anchor, who was struck by how quickly his colleagues backed off their bombast about Barack Obama's imminent triumph.

"The pirouettes are amazing," says Brokaw, who was analyzing the campaign on MSNBC. "The utter confidence with which everyone had been wrong 20 minutes earlier, they have the same utter confidence about what produced this surprise. It's intellectually dishonest."

Clinton's come-from-behind moment came on the same evening that John McCain -- all but buried by the press last summer -- was winning New Hampshire's Republican primary. And it was five days after Mike Huckabee, all but ignored by the media for most of 2007, won in Iowa.

The series of blown calls amount to the shakiest campaign performance yet by a profession seemingly addicted to snap judgments and crystal-ball pronouncements. Not since the networks awarded Florida to Al Gore on Election Night 2000 has the collective media establishment so blatantly missed the boat.

The reasons are legion: News outlets are serving up more analysis and blogs to remain relevant in a wired world. Many cash-strapped organizations are spending less on field reporting, and television tries to winnow a crowded field for the sake of a better narrative. Cable shows and Web sites provide a gaping maw to be filled with fresh speculation. Tracking polls fuel a conventional wisdom that feeds on itself. The length of today's campaigns provides more twists and turns long before most voters tune in. And there is a natural journalistic tendency to try to peer around the next corner.

"Look at this cycle," says CBS correspondent Jeff Greenfield. "McCain front-runner, McCain dead, McCain is back. Hillary inevitable, Hillary toast, Hillary is back. There is no defense for this. It is built into our DNA."

Greenfield fell into the trap with a Slate piece Tuesday on how Clinton and other candidates could recover from early losses, leading to a hastily added postscript: " OK, Hillary won tonight. Oh, waiter, two orders of crow, please. This is what happens when you ignore your own advice to let the people vote first."

Once it was enough to cover and analyze a campaign. Now, in an age of endless blogging and blabbing, journalists rush to declare winners and losers in advance. They rely on a plethora of polls that sometimes miss late shifts in sentiment, driven by events such as the endless replays of Clinton choking up in a coffee shop Monday. Gina Glantz, Bill Bradley's 2000 campaign manager, says female voters resented the way mostly male pundits handled the incident.

"Women watched the media treat her in almost demeaning ways -- not for what kind of president she would be, but whether she looked angry or practiced tearing up," Glantz says. "It was really quite obnoxious."

In the post-Iowa euphoria over Obama, the narrative was set. Consider a front-page piece about the Clinton campaign in Tuesday's New York Times: "Key campaign officials may be replaced. She may start calling herself the underdog." Or Tuesday's Washington Post: "Obama has opened up a clear lead, and a second victory over Clinton would leave the New York senator's candidacy gasping for breath." Or Tuesday's Chicago Tribune: "With a cluster of new polls in New Hampshire showing Obama building a substantial lead . . . the state appeared poised to play its storied role in humbling perceived front-runners."

The New York Post went with one word over a Hillary picture: "PANIC."

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