Lies, Lies, and Second-Order Reporting

Paul Krugman and Jay Rosen have both written some nice, researched responses to my Wednesday rant about “perception is reality”-style politics reporting. Krugman’s call-back to his 10-year-old observation about the John Kerry campaign is my favorite part of either piece. That year, Kerry ran on a health insurance expansion that would have cost $650 billion, and it got barely any coverage.* “When reports mentioned the Kerry plan at all, it was usually horse race analysis,” wrote Krugman. “How it’s playing, not what’s in it.”

This is a problem that, strangely, the expansion of live campaign reporting via video and Twitter hasn’t fixed. Think of how much money news organizations spend to make sure they have cameras at every presidential campaign event. OK. Now, think of how quickly CNN or Fox or MSNBC cuts away from the live feed (unless the campaign has promised something new in the speech, like a response to a gaffe or foreign policy crisis) in order to ask for analysis from whatever chuckleheads are in the New York studiousually analysis about how the speech they’re not watching is going to play in the real America they’re not in. It’s all very strange.

That said I’d like to clarify what I was writing about here: “Journalists, in real time, are not the best arbiters of what people will come to believe months later.” I was writing (as it says there) about incorrect stories. The idea that the CBO report was warning of 2.5 million fewer jobs, thanks to Obamacare, was wrong, as Paul Ryan pointed out the day after it got traction. If there are actually 2.5 million fewer jobs than there would have been minus Obamacare, come November, it’s going to cut like a lightsaber through Democrats.

Similarly, if President Obama had ordered the ATF to let guns cross the border illegally in an Operation Fast and Furious, it would have been tremendously damaging. Because a version of the program predated his administration, it didn’t carry beyond the conservative media. That’s what I meant, and it’s a better guideline than “whether a campaign is successful or not.” The Romney campaign scored a few hits on Obama before losing to him. But the fake hits, no matter how much the press speculated about their power, did not sink in with voters.

*Correction, Feb. 10, 2014: This post originally misstated that John Kerry ran for president on a health insurance expansion that would have cost $650. The expansion would have cost $650 billion.