Horse Race Journalism

When I was 11, I loved horses, and often watched horse races on TV (beyond everyone’s obligatory viewing of the Kentucky Derby). It was always helpful when the broadcasters would provide commentary like “Sea Biscuit’s in 4th but moving up strong,” which would help make sense of the seething mass of identical brown horses. I suppose that’s what today’s journalists and political pundits think they’re doing when they provide their daily (or hourly) accounting of who’s ahead in the presidential primaries—along with endless theories of why. We’re treated to interminable discussions of candidates’ hairstyles, lapel buttons (flag or no flag? disease ribbon?), verbal missteps, and the fact that were seen shaking hands with someone whose neighbor once said he thought Muslims really weren’t so bad. And the sole context for these discussions is the horse race commentary “Michelle’s in 4th place in Iowa now, will this help her with left-handed voters who hate cats?”  

But the thing is, the sole point of a horse race is to see who wins.  There is no larger meaning of any kind, whereas, in politics, the race exists only as a means to an end—selecting someone to guide the nation. (To be fair, there are certain similarities, to wit that the winners of both types of races get to make more money and mate with larger numbers of desirable females). So how about we spend a little more time thinking about the end than the means?

 What do I mean? Well, I suggest that these on-screen “journalists” spend the months leading up to an election exploring in depth the consequences to the country of a candidate’s statements and positions rather than the consequences to the candidate. Wouldn’t you like someone smarter than you (or at least with more time to research the topic than you) to help figure out this kind of thing? This is such an alien idea, something so outside our everyday experience with TV “journalism”, that I’d better give an example. Here’s a random one: This morning, reading a typical horse race commentary, I noticed a writer mention in passing that Mitt Romney suggested we deport all 11 million “illegal aliens.” Ok, that’s certainly a concrete proposal (i.e., not “let’s keep America Number One,” or “I support our troops”), and is one that has been voiced in various forms by a number of Republican candidates. And immigration is certainly a very important issue. But to the pundits, the only importance to a candidate’s plan to remove 11 million workers from the country seems to be in how it might hurt his chances with Hispanic voters vs. help him with covertly racist voters in border states. What nonsense! I want someone with the time, money, and clout to access data and expert researchers (not partisan mouthpieces) to explore the consequences of this plan and explain them to me! What do I mean? Well, a number of questions come readily to mind:

  • If we deport a large number of people who are employed in low-wage jobs, who will do these jobs?
  • Are there people to take those jobs?
  • If so, will they have to be paid more than the illegals? And presuming they will (since if there were legal residents willing to take the jobs for less money than the illegals, the illegals wouldn’t be working here in the first place) how much more will it cost?
  • Who will pay these costs and how will they affect the economy?
  • Will increased costs drive anyone out of business?  
  • If the illegals aren’t replaced, what work will not get done and how will that affect us all?
  • How much will it cost to identify and deport that many people and where will that money come from?
  • What are alternative proposals to deal with the issue of illegal immigration and what are their consequences?

 It took me a good 3 minutes to think of these questions, and I’m sure in 3 minutes you could easily add more sensible ones. And that’s just on the one topic. One passing remark by a candidate. What if we did that for all the major policy positions of the different candidates and parties? Invade this country? Bomb that one? Raise taxes? Lower taxes? Regulate trading of derivatives? What are derivatives, anyway? Gee, that would be hard! It would take a long time! Well, it would take too long for a 2 minute horse race, but not for a 2 year political race. Why not use the 24/7 “news” cycle for something helpful rather than entertaining? Bring back investigative journalism that focuses on something other than sexual scandals! Maybe we wouldn’t always have to be so surprised by the consequences of our country’s actions if we thought about them a little bit beforehand.

2 comments on “Horse Race Journalism

  1. peterjesson says:

    Just found out that BBC World News – America is available, on Comcast, as of a week or so ago. Channel 171.

    Gives a very good perspective on the rest of the world. I have not had time to assess how gingerly they treat US domestic news.

  2. […] is theoretically a slight improvement on the “Horse Race Journalism” I railed against in a previous post, it continues the chattering class’s insistence on confusing labeling with rational analysis. […]

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