Horse race journalism (and why I read it)

I’ve had a draft of this post sitting in my intray for a while now. It started because I wanted to mention, or at least link to, an article over at The Atlantic, which came out in 2011. I don’t understand politics or media nearly as well as I’d like to; but I’ve kept mulling it over. The post below is my attempt to hash through various points on media, and how it relates to politics. It’s not definitive, or necessarily correct; but it’s my attempt to think through some issues I think are both interesting and important. It’s in three broad sections; the original article I came across, the speech that article drew from, and my own subsequent thoughts on the topic.

The article

The article at The Atlantic mentions two key ideas that I think are really interesting, and perhaps ones that aren’t often articulated clearly, let alone consistently kept in mind when processing media commentary on politics – and I think they’re both important.

  • A significant portion of commentary on government focuses on the politics, and the process. That is, on how the game is being played (I’m thinking of this conversation from Game of Thrones, about the 2 minute mark).
  • That can distract from important issues – like how the outcome of the political game actually plays out, and how it changes outcomes for average people.

The upshot of this is that we can see positive coverage of bad policy, if it’s played-well – delivered well, ‘sold’ well, packaged with good talking points. Which I think is a bad outcome for people who consume that media and commentary, and who may ultimately vote or make other decisions based on it.

The speech

The article in the Atlantic is turn based on a 2011 speech, by Jay Rosen. Early on, Rosen summarises one of his key points:

Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.

The crux of this issue is the first point above; that the political coverage is focusing on the game, the tactics of how politics and government work. But Rosen is making a slightly different point; that as well as focusing on this aspect, the framework is one where journalists treat politics as an insiders’ game, one where complex machinations play out behind closed doors–on the inside– and that it’s their job to uncover those machinations, by gaining access to those ‘insiders’. And if journalists are doing this, they are effectively telling their audience ‘here is how party A, B or C is trying to control media coverage/influence the discussion/influence you’.

The second point Rosen makes is that as part of this framework, journalists start to value what he calls ‘saviness’ – as Rosen puts it:

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.

Rosen then ties this point back to his first one. If the media are attempting to gain access to an inner sanctum where the ‘insiders’ are, and value in reporting ‘saviness’, that ability to see through it, then, Rosen argues, viewers/readers/consumers of media are positioned as two contradictory things: we’re invited to be one of the savvy insiders’; but at the same time, almost by definition, if you and I are getting our understanding of the political process and the machinations from a newspaper or some form of public media, then we’re members of the public, not members of the ‘savvy insiders’ group.

I found Rosen’s third point, on the production of innocence, less clear than his earlier two. Essentially, I think, he’s arguing that a) the media want or need to be seen as neutral, and that b) that desire to be seen as neutral makes particular forms of journalism, such as false-equivalence/’he-said–she said’ journalism (for more on that see James Fallows) or horse race journalism attractive (the latter because it enables a focus on the outcomes of the political game (see point 2), rather than the value outcomes). But, Rosen argues, journalists have (an essential) role to play as interpreters and commentators – in saying ‘this is not true’, or ‘this is a bad outcome’; and that both of the forms above fail to live up to that standard.

Rosen then argues that the current focus of media leaves them vulnerable to what he calls ‘verification in reverse’; which, if I’m reading him correctly, is a strategy of challenging established facts to generate a political controversy, and then using that political controversy to crowd out the underlying facts from media coverage.

Finally, he outlines a different system, a ‘thought experiment’ of how media might work – I’ll leave you to read it if you’re interested, but essentially it centres on a willingness by journalists to sift through and identify what the key underlying facts are, where there’s still legitimate disagreement, and then to sift out the attempts at manipulation of the media, and not allowing the focus on insider machinations to crowd out the important aspects of the story.

What I think

As I’ve said, media and politics are complex topics, ones I’m still very much learning about. I liked both the article and Rosen’s speech; partially because I think they help draw out some useful points, particularly in highlighting that a media focus on the tactics of politics, the game of how it’s played, isn’t essential or necessarily helpful.

Having said which, I think there’s more to the story. One point is that as a consumer of media, someone who reads news articles quite regularly, and occasionally watches TV coverage – it can be really helpful to have someone analysing, explaining and critiquing the nexus between political machinations and media coverage. That might be giving suggestions of where there’s bias, or why a particular piece of coverage isn’t the full story. That, in turn, helps me make decisions about which newspapers I’ll read, or whose coverage I’ll trust on a particular issue.

That isn’t to say that it justifies a complete focus purely on the insiders’ games, to the exclusion of all else. But there is some room for coverage of that kind.

But I think I agree with Rosen’s point or recommendation; which is that the kind of coverage I think is valuable and important is the kind of reporting that enables us to understand not only the insiders’ game, but also the outcomes for real people. If a particular politician has done a particularly good job in communicating a policy, or if a political organisation has executed a strategy well to achieve a particular outcome, what does that mean for us? What is the policy change that may ultimately result from that, and who will be affected, and how?

Which brings me to my final point. Rosen notes Neil Postman’s work in his speech, and Neil Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death is (I hope) a significant influence in how I think about media. And a key part of Postman’s argument was that we need to think about the economic structures; who’s paying for what, and why are people incentivised to do the things they do? In this case, who buys media? And how is that incentivising reporters?

The answer, sadly is us; it’s the human beings that we are, buying newspapers, subscribing online, watching TV. Of course, with that, is the knowledge that most media is heavily dependent on advertising; if I can paraphrase a vague memory of Postman, television is advertisements with pieces of media dangled to attract viewers in between. So of course advertisers, and people who own, control or otherwise influence media organisations shape coverage. But ultimately, I suspect that if all of us were paying top-dollar for in-depth NATSEM reports, there’d be many more of them published, and you could see advertisements in between long lectures on the complexities of the interaction between particular aspects of the tax system.

But the truth is after a long day I’m tired; and I like a simple story. And I think it’s perhaps the case for a reasonable number of people that they already have opinions about what’s good and bad policy – what we don’t know is how a particular piece of political story and theatre may play out. So we’re back to one of Rosen’s early points, which is that in some ways, politics as insider drama is also politics as entertainment, and coverage of that can be a low-cost alternative to some other forms:

From a TV programmer’s point of view the advantage of politics-as-entertainment is that the main characters, the politicians themselves, work for free! The media doesn’t have to pay them because taxpayers do. The sets are provided by the government, the plots by the party leaders, back benchers and spin doctors. Politics as problem-solving or consensus-building would be more expensive to cover. Politics as entertainment is simply a low cost alternative.

I don’t know that I really have a conclusion on all of this; just that I think these are interesting questions that are worth thinking about, and ones that I don’t feel I fully understand yet.


For a slightly different discussion of the same ideas, see this piece by James Fallows (circa 1996). Interestingly, he also uses the term ‘sideshow’ (a la Lindsay Tanner; see the final para) in his critique of problems in the media.



The cover of Yiyun Li’s Kinder than solitude notes the multiple awards she’s won, and there’s a quote by Salman Rushdie praising the novel (I assume it’s this one). But judged by the contents, this book didn’t live up to its hype.

The story follows four individuals, who shared a courtyard as children (although one is actually older than the others – twenty-two when they’re in early high school). A life-changing incident in their childhood reverberates throughout their lives, which the narrative touches on at various points, alternating between their pasts and presents.

The underlying story is an interesting one – there are some interesting characters, and enough narrative material to build a story out of. But there are significant chunks of the book that are simply dreary, tedious recountings of pedestrian lives, that feel much like a shopping list read by an automated telephone system.

I agreed with this review in The Guardian that significant editorial cuts could have helped this be a much tauter novel, and thought this on in The Washington Post was far too generous. Yiyun Li is apparently a brilliant writer, and I’d be willing to try some more of her writing; but if you haven’t started, I wouldn’t make this your first one.


Beautiful cinematography

I’ve been watching a bit of TV recently.

House of Cards is well crafted, and has some beautiful asides to the audience. Increasingly sinister as the show goes on – and I’m not a fan of the Svengali like portrayal of some of the main character’s relationships – but it’s good.

I enjoyed Malificentthe cinematography is stunning. Everything looks extremely beautiful. The story underlying it is unfortunately awkward and lumpy. I wouldn’t go quite as far as Christopher Orr in his scathing review, but it wasn’t a well-told story. But beautifully made.

I know it’s been a while since The Life of Pi came out, but I only just saw it (although I’d read the book). It’s a breathtakingly beautiful movie – just spectacular. Go watch it.

Making decisions

Making decisions is something I’ve done a little bit of thinking about, although I still don’t have it figured out.

So I was interested to see this talk by a philosopher, Ruth Chang, come up – How to make hard choices. It’s a good talk, and worth watching.

I think she articulates the problem well; and she reaches a conclusion that I agree with. But something about her logic feels a little off to me. I’m hoping to read her article (I think it’s Are hard choices cases of incomparability?, which you can find on her webpage), and I may come back to this then.

But for now I’ll just reflect on the talk. I think her definition of the problem is great. When we’re confronted by a ‘hard choice’, it’s often because there is no clear metric for which option is better. It’s a mistake to think of comparing two potential jobs as something that can be put next to each other on a scale from one to ten, particularly if they’re strikingly different (she uses the example of an artist and investment banker).

I also agree with her that hard choices like that are opportunities to define our values. I read somewhere in my undergrad studies (apologies for not digging the reference up) that one theory of how we think about ourselves is through interpreting our actions; that is, we build a self-model based on perceptions of our own actions. So in that sense, it’s very concretely a case of building ourselves. More broadly, a ‘hard choice’ is a chance to translate into action a set of ideas we may hold; about what we value, or don’t value.

But I disagree with her on the intermediate step of her speech. After saying that a simple one-dimensional perspective isn’t right, she suggests that instead of the three possibilities when comparing two quantities (greater than, less than, or equal), there should be a fourth – ‘on par’, which might mean … I forget her words, but something like ‘roughly equivalent’.

Perhaps I’m approaching this too simplistically, but that just sounds like a fuzzy way of saying ‘the difference between the value of these two options is small’, which puts us right back on a simple one-dimensional number line. The issue is that big choices aren’t choices between two things – even when we have two options, we’re really choosing between packages of multiple types of things. One option might involve status, money, and stability; another might involve freedom and some form of artistic fulfilment.

There are multiple things involved, and multiple types of things; they’re different scales. In choosing between donuts and cereal, we’re valuing both healthy eating, and tastiness, which are two separate attributes.

The question then becomes, how much do you value each of the things in different bundles? And I’m not suggesting that in the real world people engage in some kind of utilitarian calculus, where they weight each attribute, and calculate a total utility for each option. (Not because that isn’t theoretically possible, but because humans use heuristics even for major decisions, and there’s significant uncertainty around most hard choices). But most of our hard choices are hard because they’re choices between multiple different types of things. So the hard part of that process, and the one (where I agree with Ruth Chang) where we get to define ourselves, is on the value we place on different attributes. How much do you value security? Fulfilment? Adventure?

So it goes on.

Bad books on good topics

One of my pet peeves is a book that picks a really interesting question, and then covers it really poorly. Madmen, intellectuals and academic scribblers is exactly that.

The topic is a fascinating one. How political debate shifts, and what brings about that change, is a fascinating question. Which was why I was so excited to read the book, but so disappointed when I got into it.

It starts with an enormous overview of political/economic thought, which borders on mildly interesting at points, but is more a list of names and broad ideas than anything interesting. Here, and throughout the book, the authors have a habit of referring to something as a ‘marketplace’ as though they’ve explained something (i.e. the ‘marketplace of ideas’), without either explaining concretely what they mean by that, or why using that language and set of concepts usefully adds to the reader’s understanding.

I will share one quote, though, from that section. It’s possibly written with a deep cynicism, but I suspect the implicit critique was purely unintentional:

Coase’s method of studying economics is an unconventional one. He investigates the real world first and uses the patterns he observes to form theories (p. 71).

In a second section, the authors give us their theory that underlies the title. In summary (and believe me, the substantive content in this section could easily have been summarised in a blog post), the authors argue there are four layers – ideas, institutions, incentives and outcomes – that determine the structure of our society. Fair enough, I suppose; again, it might make for an interesting article, drawn out a little. But the extent of the useful prediction they make from this is that there is no useful prediction to be made:

But a more careful look suggests a more profound conclusion: There is no starting point. The search for such a magical point – a lever with which to change the world – is a fallacy common to madmen and intellectuals everywhere … Because humans are rational creatures, and because they respond to incentives, we can and should expect them to adjust to changing conditions in their world, to include new rules. 

As a conclusion, it’s a defensible one; but it could have been reached much more efficiently, without dragging me through an unnecessary theory that turns out to be irrelevant.

The final point in their book is a chapter on political ‘entrepreneurs’. Again, there’s consistency in applying economic terminology without adding any new substantive content. Their advice for effective political entrepreneurship? ‘A focus on comparative advantage’ (so general as to be useless; put your effort where it’ll be most comparatively effective), ‘deep knowledge of the market’ (know what you’re doing), ‘getting the greatest marginal return’ (focus on the most effective areas).

That’s it.

190 pages later, in a book that’s about in part how political debate shifts and changes, and how big ideas become policy, and their big idea boils down to ‘it’s complicated – be effective, efficient, and know what you’re doing’.

Some books should come with a coupon to compensate you for the time you spent reading them.


The politics of taxation

Matt Cowgill has a post up on the idea that tax policy can be depoliticised. I think it’s bang on the money. Tax policy is in essence redistribution, within and between parts of a society. It’s hard to think of anything that’s more contested than the idea of how resources should be distributed. While there may be some pareto gains, where we could all win without anyone being worse off, they’re few and far between. Virtually every other tax change involves winners and losers; which is where the politics comes in.

The banality of evil

I’ve just finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. It’s an account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. It’s well written. I think I’d expected – both from the title and the from articles I’d read – that there’d be more on the sub-title. That is, the question of the banality of evil; in this case, how a horrific genocide can be perpetrated by a system, a bureaucracy, of people who in many ways do not seem obviously horrendously and horrifically in the same way that their crimes are. As Arendt writes in her epilogue:

… it would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster … The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the may were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied-as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels-that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani [enemy of mankind], commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-night impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. 

That issue, to me, is a central one I’m still thinking about (and what the implications of different conclusions are). There are several books on my list of things I’d like to read that I think will help unpack the issue a little more. But most of Arendt’s book focuses on the mechanics of what Eichmann was accused of, and of the trial. So it was well-written, but not focussed in the area’s I’d expected.