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Why Cantor's Loss Caught Journalists Flat-footed

Why Cantor's Loss Caught Journalists Flat-footed

By Richard Benedetto - June 23, 2014

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's unexpected drubbing in the Virginia Republican primary, and the ensuing flood of breathless new stories, marathon TV talkfests  and overdrawn analyses trying to explain it and its implications, laid bare a serious flaw in political news reporting these days: It is way out of touch with the average voter.

If it were in touch, many Washington reporters would have picked up pre-election clues from real people that Cantor was in trouble. A handful traveled to his district -- about an hour’s drive from D.C. -- and talked to potential voters. Some even picked up early rumblings of discontent. But none were there in the final weeks of the race to measure it again.  Instead, most holed up in Washington and bought the spin of pollsters, strategists and political operatives, all of whom said the majority leader would win easily.

“The Take” by U.S. News & World Report the day before the primary was typical:  “The question isn’t whether House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will win re-nomination, but by how much.” 

So when vote counts started streaming in showing Cantor headed for defeat, everyone was caught flat-footed.  But rather than figure out what they missed, and how they missed it, they changed gears and sped off screaming, without solid evidence, that this was clear proof that the Republican Party was indeed badly split by its Tea Party wing and thus in serious election trouble nationally.

“Cantor loses in primary shocker; Tea Party ousts majority leader,” said a morning-after Page One headline in The Washington Post.

“The Tea Party Cannibalizes Eric Cantor,” chimed in The Daily Beast.

 “Eric Cantor Defeat: Tea Party Looks for Next Upset,” added NBC News.

And so it went. To be sure, Tea Party opposition contributed to Cantor’s loss. But how much is still unclear. So far, we have no empirical evidence such as post-election polling to quantify it, let alone draw vast national implications. Yet we in the media have already made it a truism. 

The same is true for the immigration issue. Aside from the role of the Tea Party, the media automatically assumed that Cantor’s stance on immigration reform strongly contributed to his demise.  Again, possibly true, but polling data is ambiguous. Nonetheless, the media buzz lingers that the issue was a huge factor.  

We in the political media are very good at talking to ourselves. It’s bad enough that we do it on TV over and over again. What’s worse, we often do it when we write our stories, filling them with the intricacies of political process and insider jargon. Rather than simply inform voters about who the candidates are and what they stand for, our stories sometimes appear designed to show our colleagues in the media and the politicians we cover how much we know about the game. Or worse, we often paint overly negative portraits of the candidates and contribute to voter malaise. 

We have forgotten who we should be writing for: real people.  Unlike us, they don’t pay attention to politics on a day-to-day basis, and they want and need good, solid information upon which to base their judgments and their votes.

Nearly 45 years ago, Wesley C. Clark, the dean of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, welcomed a new class of graduate students with two wise admonitions:

-- As journalists, you represent the people, not a political party, ideology or cause.

-- Give people good information.  They will figure out what to do with it.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when political reporters automatically followed those edicts. They not only went out with the candidates and recorded what they were saying, they also talked to a lot of potential voters to get a sense of what was on their minds as the race was unfolding.  Thus, they were able to present well-rounded stories about races, the key issues and a sense of how the voters might come down in the balloting.

A master of that kind of reporting was Washington Post legend David Broder, a fixture on the campaign trail well into his late 70s. During the course of a campaign, whether presidential or congressional, he went into the congressional districts, knocked on doors and interviewed just-plain folks. That kind of reporting is not easy. It takes time, patience and a positive attitude. Many people are reluctant to talk to reporters. Broder would joke about how many doors were slammed in his face. But he trudged on.

Some reporters in the business today say they would like to do that kind of reporting, but in this New Media age, the focus is on flash and dash, not substance. With shrinking news staffs and deadlines every minute, few have the luxury of time to do the reporting required. And even if they did, some editors might dismiss such stories as “boring,” and not use them.

So perhaps the David Broder style of reporting is passé, a casualty of the Internet, Twitter, Tumblr and cable news chatter. That’s too bad. David died in 2011, but if he and his contemporaries were still around, Cantor’s defeat would not have been a “shocker.” And the real people we should be serving might better understand why he lost, why David Brat won -- and what it all might mean for the future of the GOP.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies at George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benedettopress.

 

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