Iowa Caucus: Don’t forget the media’s role in all of this

Lost in all the post-Iowa hubbub about who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out is the very real discussion of how the media has taken a confab of 120,000 largely white and rural voters and blown it up into an all-consuming every four years ritual that goes a long way in determining who the next President might be.  From Brendan Nyhan at the Columbia Journalism Review:

Unfortunately, the “meaning” of the caucus results is not always clear. These rough edges are typically sanded away in post-Iowa reporting and commentary, however, which tends to emphasize the order of the finish (even when the margins between candidates are small) as well as unexpectedly weak or strong results. Media outlets then shift energy and resources toward candidates who performed well under the prevailing interpretation, while ignoring or providing negative coverage of those who were believed to have done poorly. These shifts in coverage, which themselves become part of the information party leaders are responding to, can help create massive post-Iowa swings in a candidate’s chances (PDF).

The result is a refraction effect in which journalists help make Iowa influential and then report on its “effects” without acknowledging their role in the process or the often arbitrary nature of the distinctions that are made among the candidates. This is a recurring problem—the norms of journalism demand that reporters exclude themselves from the stories they write, creating a troubling lack of self-consciousness about their own role in the process.

New York University’s Jay Rosen makes a similar point as well:

The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years.

The need for the media to drive the narrative is extremely strong.  In 2012, it’s been just as much the media driving the boomlets for the many non-Romney contenders as it has been the fickle nature of the Republican voters.  After all, there’s 24-hour news channels to fill — someone has to be rising, someone has to be falling, someone has to be making a gaffe, someone needs to be daring to challenge the status quo and be admired for their spunk but consistently dismissed as a real threat.

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2 Responses to “Iowa Caucus: Don’t forget the media’s role in all of this”

  1. I wonder if these same folks felt the same way 4 years ago when we had the last Iowa caucus. It seems the mostly white and mostly rural voters (as you classified them, like it matters what race they are), and they picked Obama and Huckabee. One went on to get the nomination, and the other did not.

    Is too much made of the Iowa caucuses? Perhaps. But just the Democrats had a wide field 4 years ago with many candidates on the stage in the pre-Iowa debates, this caucus quickly narrowed the field. I can tell you from my prospective as an eventual candidate supporter, I wait on financial support until we get a nominee. I expect a candidate to win on ideas rather than the number of ads they can repeat ad nauseum.

    In the end, we know that much of the media will carry water for Obama, and when I hear these liberal organizations offering us advice on which candidate conservatives should choose, I have to note that they are likely looking to push the candidate that will be easiest for their guy to defeat.

    • The media tried to do the same thing four years ago as well (“Hillary is inevitable” and “McCain is dead” were two of the major narratives that lingered for months in primary season before being proven wrong). Part of me wonders whether voters don’t instinctively react to trying to have a narrative shoved down their throats and try to flip the script.

      [EDIT: Same thing in 2004, as well. The media did a number on Howard Dean long before the “Dean scream” put the final nail in the coffin. Go back and look at the thinly-sourced stories on Dean’s temper, for instance. I wasn’t a Dean supporter and thought it was ridiculous.]

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