Atop the Post's front page, Tumulty proves Krugman's point: Yesterday, in his New York Times column, Paul Krugman discussed what the press corps should and shouldn't do in reporting Monday's debate.
We didn't agree with every word. In particular, we don't recommend the casual use of the term "lie" when journalists describe the misstatements of candidates, even the howling misstatements.
That said, we think Krugman made a lot of good points, if you're prepared to accept a large amount of informed speculation on his part. In that chunk of informed speculation, Krugman says it's highly likely that Candidate Trump will emit more howlers during Monday's debate than Candidate Clinton will.
If that happens, Krugman says, the press corps should let that basic fact guide its reporting and analyses. Their reporting and analyses should reflect the disproportion between the two candidates' misstatements.
According to Krugman, the press corps shouldn't pretend, or convey the impression, that the two candidates misspoke to an equal degree. And yet, Krugman says, journalists will feel pressured to do just that.
In this passage, we think Krugman makes good points, assuming you're prepared to accept his assumption about what is likely to happen:
KRUGMAN (9/23/16): ...I am not calling on the news media to take a side; I’m just calling on it to report what is actually happening, without regard for party. In fact, any reporting that doesn’t accurately reflect the huge honesty gap between the candidates amounts to misleading readers, giving them a distorted picture that favors the biggest liar.Never mind whether what the candidate said is true or false, how did it play? How did he or she “come across”?
Yet there are, of course, intense pressures on the news media to engage in that distortion. Point out a Trump lie and you will get some pretty amazing mail—and if we set aside the attacks on your race or ethnic group, accusations that you are a traitor, etc., most of it will declare that you are being a bad journalist because you don’t criticize both candidates equally.
One all-too-common response to such attacks involves abdicating responsibility for fact-checking entirely, and replacing it with theater criticism: Never mind whether what the candidate said is true or false, how did it play? How did he or she “come across”? What were the “optics”?
But theater criticism is the job of theater critics; news reporting should tell the public what really happened, not be devoted to speculation about how other people might react to what happened.
In that passage, Krugman is describing an extremely common type of punditry. For a recent egregious example, consider Nia-Malika Henderson's analysis of a statement by Candidate Clinton in the recent Commander in Chief Forum. For our report, click here.
Krugman is right in that passage. Analysts should focus on whether a statement is true or false, not on speculations about how the statement "came across" to the nation's 130 million voters.
That said, journalists love to engage in such speculations. They even like to pre-speculate about such matters—to speculate in advance.
We thought of that passage from Krugman's column when we read today's Washington Post. Atop the front page of the hard-copy Post, a news report by Karen Tumulty sat beneath these headlines:
Why the first debate is the most hazardousThose headlines are egregious. In those headlines, the Washington Post tells its readers that expectations for Candidate Clinton will be higher next Monday night. For that reason, the Post tells readers, an error by Candidate Clinton on Monday may prove to be more harmful than an error by Candidate Trump.
With expectations for Clinton higher, a stumble could hurt her more
That last claim is pure speculation. That said, this conceptual structure is very familiar from past presidential debates, most notably from the first debate between Candidates Bush and Gore in October 2000.
In the run-up to that crucial debate, the mainstream press corps immersed itself in the expectations game. For a reasonably detailed report about what they did, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/06.
The mainstream press corps loves to play this expectations game. Note the way Tumulty recalls that deeply consequential first debate between Bush and Gore as she starts her report:
TUMULTY (9/24/16): The first presidential debate of the general election is often the most treacherous—especially for the candidate who steps on stage with the presumed advantage.Eventually, Tumulty explains her claim that expectations for Candidate Clinton are higher. She cites a recent survey in which 53 percent of voters said they expected Clinton to do a better job Monday night.
Which is why Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the one in that position this time around, knows not to take anything for granted.
Monday’s 90-minute faceoff at Hofstra University on Long Island is projected to have the biggest audience ever for politics’ equivalent of the NBA playoffs, with estimates that upward of 100 million people will be watching.
“You can’t really win an election in a debate, but you can lose one,” said Brett O’Donnell, a communications consultant with long experience coaching GOP presidential candidates. “The first debate is the most important of all the debates, and it definitely has the most potential to harm.”
Examples of first-debate stumbles are many. And they have almost always hurt the candidate for whom the expectations were higher.
The biggest pitfall is a blunder that confirms the misgivings that voters may already be harboring.
A confused Ronald Reagan rambled in 1984, opening doubts about whether he had become too old to do the most important job in the world. In 2000, Al Gore sighed and exaggerated. George W. Bush casually draped himself over the lectern in 2004 and peevishly quibbled on minor points. Four years ago, an aloof Barack Obama seemed to phone it in.
Only 43 percent said they expected Trump to do a better job. On that rather flimsy basis, Tumulty speculates that a blunder by Clinton may do more harm than a blunder by Trump.
This is pure speculation. To state the obvious, no one has made a blunder yet. More significantly, Tumulty presents no evidence in support of her basic thesis—her claim that voters react more strongly to a blunder by the candidate who entered the debate with "higher expectations."
She cites Campaign 2000 as an example supporting her thesis. What sorts of blunders did Candidate Gore supposedly make, leading to pushback from voters expecting more?
"In 2000, Al Gore sighed and exaggerated," Tumulty writes. In a slightly more rational world, work like this would get reporters and editors fired.
Did Candidate Gore "sigh and exaggerate" during that first debate? Did the sighing and the exaggerations cause him to be graded harshly by voters?
When it comes to the alleged sighing, we've often extended The C-Span Challenge. Go ahead! Watch that full debate on this C-Span videotape. Accept the challenge of trying to see or hear those troubling sighs, which later became so famous in the punditry of the mainstream press.
After puzzling yourself in that manner, recall this additional point. After that history-changing debate, five major news orgs surveyed viewers about which candidate "won."
In all five surveys, Candidate Gore was declared the winner, by a margin which averaged ten points. This happened after the voters were offended by the sighs you'll barely see or hear on that C-Span tape, according to Tumulty's thesis—after Gore was supposedly graded harshly, due to voters' high expectations before that crucial debate.
According to Krugman, journalists shouldn't speculate about the way candidates' statements "come across" to voters. Atop the front page in this morning's Post, Tumulty is pre-speculating about the way a blunder by Clinton may come across.
Tumulty is also declaring that Candidate Clinton is facing a higher bar next Monday. Before the first debate of Campaign 2000, mainstream pundits spent so much time driving down expectations for Candidate Bush that they were openly laughing about it in the days before that debate.
Three days before that crucial debate, Brit Hume laughingly described the way expectations had been lowered for Candidate Bush. According to Hume, the run-up to this first debate “helped to beat the expectations down, which are now in the case of George W. Bush so low that if he gets through it without drooling that he will have thought to have done well, or at least better than some expected.”
It's fairly clear that Hume was discussing the way expectations for Candidate Bush had been lowered by major pundits. A few other pundits mocked this journalistic procedure back then. But Tumulty was playing the same old game this morning.
In this game, pundits set different expectations for the candidates before the debate. They set the bar of expectations higher for one candidate, lower for the other. Often, this setting of expectations will affect the way the debate is judged, not by any actual voters, but by the press corps itself.
Making matters worse, Tumulty supports her thesis with a Standard Press Corps Story about that first Bush-Gore debate—a Standard Story which eliminates what the press corps did after five surveys all declared that, in the opinion of voters who watched the debate, Candidate Gore had "won."
If you couldn't observe what our press corps does, you'd think such conduct couldn't exist. On Monday, we'll extend these thoughts, noting the way the career liberal world has endlessly enabled and accepted this mainstream press conduct.
Yesterday, Krugman complained, making some very good points as he did. These complaints come very late in the game, a game of some twenty-plus years.