"And what about the press?" the businessman asked, as the post-election analysis briefing was ending. A ripple of applause swept through the room. No one said, nor did they have to, what that question and instant audience response signaled. If it was a bad year for the pollsters, it was at least as poor a one for the national political press. And these people implicitly were asking what many others across the country wanted to know -- how could you all have been so wrong, and what is going to be done about it in the future?
There's a touch of gleeful rejoicing in much of the stated concerns about the recent obvious presidential election sins of the press; when it comes to making friends, the press by its very essence seldom displays notable gifts. Not surprisingly, the picture of all of us smug and mighty journalistic oracles in Washington so visibly falling on our collective faces surely strikes people as a long-deserved comeuppance.But there's something more serious at work here, and the press, it seems to me, ignores it at its peril.
Years ago a pundit wrote a book called The Great Game of Politics. That term describes much of the nature of political reporting. It is a game, and aggressively played as such, to the pleasure and profit of the select members of its journalistic practitioners. In recent years, the game has become more complex, the stakes higher, the players supposedly more skilled. Now the game has taken on more of the trappings of a science, or shall we say, pseudo-science: we rely heavily on, and quote approvingly from, the latest of the endless outpourings of authoritative (we pretend) survey data from the national opinion people. Stories about the game are buttressed -- or based entirely -- on the findings of the pollsters. They tell us who's winning and losing, and we pass on the revealed wisdom, with informed commentary and analysis about what the trends mean.
The 1980 election year saw this process reach new heights with more polls than ever, many commissioned by news organizations, more journalistic reliance on them to take the daily, if not hourly, political temperature readings -- and more mistakes than at any point in a generation. Misreading the election as "too close to call" even as citizens prepared to vote will be the polling mistake most remembered, but it may not have been the greatest error of the year. To pick one among many, the New York primary results when Edward M. Kennedy overwhelmed Jimmy Carter, to the consternation and embarrassment of the pollsters, took on the proportions of epic error.
For the press, the lessons are obvious. Polls are no substitute for hard reporting. In many cases, as it turns out, reporters would have been better served by relying on their own legwork, which in turn produces their own political instincts, than on the presumably scientific samples of voters supplied by the pollsters. But the 1980 election brought another, older, journalistic problem to the surface for all to see.
Never has the criticism that Washington reporters are out of touch with the country been more justified during the long 1980 presidential campaign period. And, to put it personally, never have been struck so forcibly by the validity of that old public complaint. It's not just that much of the Washington journalistic fraternity seems isolated from what people elsewhere are thinking; it's the astonishing, almost aggressive, assurance with which many claim to know what's on people's minds. Two personal examples:
The day after the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan debate, when I returned to Washington, the consensus of those I talked to in the newsroom was that Carter had won. He had, as one person put it, knocked Reagan out of the box and won the election with his performance. That certainly wasn't the way voters I had been talking to felt. Their reaction was just the opposite -- Reagan had impressed them the most, enough so to change -- literally overnight -- the way some had planned to vote.
The second, and stronger, impression, came after examining the nearly two months' supply of newspapers and magazines accumulated during a long trip around the country. I was particularly fascinated by the political analysis and olympian, self-assured tone struck in successive issues of The New Republic.
Sept. 27, under the headline "No Tidal Waves"; the writer, the magazine's executive editor, Morton Kondracke, noted that the Republicans had been predicting a historic sweep based on poll data showing that three-quarters of the electorate believed things "are seriously off the track" in America and that 80 percent understood that the Democrats had been in power during the derailment.
"There is little prospect now for a tidal wave in Washington," he commented, either in the presidential or congressional races. And, besides, "even as a safe campaigner, Reagan is not performing well." A week later the same writer was proclaiming that independent John B. Anderson could win, and a week after that saying that "the Carter campaign is running hard and hitting fast" and was "politically effective." That week's wisdom concluded: "The odds in this election may still favor Reagan, but nobody right now should bet against the power of incumbency, political energy and Rafshoonery."
The Nov. 8 issue, published after the election but providing the final political analysis as the nation went to the polls, dealt with the significance of the debate. Once again, Kondracke was absolutely certain about what had happened. He "couldn't disagree more" with those who thought Reagan had been the effective victor: "By every measure except awshucks niceness, Carter was the clearly superior performer," and, "If anyone gains politically from the Tuesday night matchup, it will be Carter."
One of the greatest American rights is the right to be wrong. We in the press have been exercising that noble right vigorously of late -- and thanking our stars, and our American founding fathers, that we still have the First Amendment to protect us. And we'd better be thankful. With the kinds of performances we've been delivering, we'd be voted out of office, too, if the people ever had a crack at us.