11.01.10

The Media's Lousy Crystal Ball

Good thing reporters aren’t paid by the prediction. Howard Kurtz on the dangerous lull before the vote is in—when bad calls and groupthink rule the press corps.

After months of polls, punditry, prognostication, and plain old blather, it feels like the midterm elections have already happened.     

We already know what’s going to transpire, right? The Republicans are going to win 50 seats in the House. No, make that 60 seats. Wait, it could be 70 seats!    

To use a Wall Street term, the GOP takeover has already been factored into the market. Baked into the political cake, as it were. Once the media mavens reach a rough consensus, the parameters of the debate shift, even if it’s based on sheer crystal-ball gazing.    

Thus it was that CNN’s Candy Crowley asked Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele about the “expectations game” on Sunday: “Less than 50 seats gained by Republicans in the House, it’s a failure.”    

Steele wasn’t buying; he insisted the 39 seats needed to win control would be a success in his book. (He even said he’d be happy with 37 seats, although that would keep the speaker’s gavel in Nancy Pelosi’s hands.)    

Have we really reached the point where the GOP could pick up 50 House seats—far more than the 31 that gave the Democrats control four years ago—and the commentators would call it a disappointment? What would be the headline? “GOP BLOWS HISTORIC LEAD, SEIZES HOUSE BY LOWER-THAN-EXPECTED MARGIN”?    

Welcome to the media playing field, where we get to move the goal lines whenever we damn feel like it. Winning by two touchdowns is all well and good, unless the journalistic referees say you need three touchdowns to beat the spread. 

In the real world, which candidates are sworn in next January, who takes over the Ways and Means Committee, who is suddenly armed with subpoena power—none of this matters. But in the great media echo chamber, politicians and parties are measured against our earlier predictions.    

If the Republicans manage to win 10 Senate seats and take that chamber as well, the feat will be magnified by the fact that it defied the pundit consensus. That means you’ll see a dramatic upgrade in weather-system analogies: Category 5 hurricane, unprecedented tsunami and so on.

If media people were effectively disbarred for lousy records, the business would be depopulated.

Not that our intrepid forecasters have to wait for the storm to actually strike.   

“TSUNAMI WARNING,” screamed the banner headline on yesterday’s Huffington Post.   

National Review’s Jim Geraghty (who says we use natural-disaster metaphors only when the Democrats lose) projected a 70-seat GOP pickup in the House and eight seats in the Senate.  

The Washington Post asked outsiders for their picks, which were almost comically precise. Politico editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei say the new House will have 224 Republicans; NewsHour political editor David Chalian says 233; ABC political director Amy Walter says 234. 

On Fox News, Dick Morris, who is out campaigning and raising money for Republicans, makes predictions that happen to favor the GOP. “I believe we’re going to win the Senate.  I think we are indeed going to sweep the table,” he declared.   

Night after night, those playing Hardball quiz each other on the blizzard of races.   

JOHN HEILEMANN: Nevada—Angle-Reid.   

CHUCK TODD: I assume Angle.   

HEILEMANN: Pennsylvania. Sestak and Toomey.  

TODD: Oh, Toomey.   

Why do we do this?

A)      We can’t help ourselves.

B)     If we’re right, we win bragging rights for having “called” the election.

C)     See A.     

Plus, there’s very little penalty for being wrong. Almost no one goes back to the videotape, and within a day or two the predictions are deemed old news. (How convenient.)   

If media people were effectively disbarred for lousy records, the business would be depopulated. Remember how everyone knew that John McCain was washed up for the 2008 nomination, and that Hillary Clinton would lose the New Hampshire primary?   

How about that Scott Brown race, when even the Boston press was convinced until the final days when Martha Coakley was going to trounce him? The veteran Delaware congressman Mike Castle wasn’t going to lose to some anti-masturbation woman whose main credential was popping off on Bill Maher’s show, was he? How many reporters thought Lisa Murkowski would forfeit the nomination to an obscure Alaskan named Joe—or that she would now have a strong chance of beating him as a write-in candidate?   

If journalists were betting big on their predictions, a whole lot of them would be facing foreclosure.   

Yes, some of it is harmless fun. And there are a growing number of sharp-eyed analysts, such as FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver, using more sophisticated tools than existed a few short years ago. But the constant churn of bold predictions and gut-level guesses reflects a culture that values the game above all else—and the insider aura of seeming to know what’s going to happen before everyone else.   

This has been a serious midterm election in many ways, a referendum on the size and reach of government, and there have certainly been journalists who have taken it seriously. There have been stories about the challenges of seriously trimming federal spending and near-impossibility of repealing President Obama’s health-care plan.   

But when you turn on the cable news channels—geez, now I’m sounding like Jon Stewart—you see far more about Obama’s cool temperament and Carl Paladino threatening to take out a reporter and a Jerry Brown aide calling Meg Whitman a whore and a Rand Paul supporter stomping on a woman’s head and Joy Behar calling Sharron Angle a bitch and Sarah Palin’s latest attack on the lamestream media. Oh, and the latest tracking polls and who’s ahead in Pennsylvania and can Harry Reid pull it out and just how many seats is the GOP going to capture, anyway?   

Perhaps, once the votes are counted, we can have that detailed debate about what the Republicans will do with their mandate and how the White House will adjust to its reduced circumstances and what it would take to mollify angry voters.   

Or maybe not. On Wednesday morning, the media will fire the starting gun for the 2012 presidential race and we’ll be off to the races again.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources , Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.