Tomgram: Jay Rosen, Mindlessness in the Media, Campaign 2008

Let’s see. They were wrong on Hillary Clinton, essentially nominating her for the presidency months before a primary was held. In Iowa, they were wrong on Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama, John Edwards and Clinton (again). In New Hampshire, wrong on Obama, Clinton (yet again), and — at least earlier in the campaign season — John McCain. In Michigan, wrong on McCain (again) and Mitt Romney. Just remind me, in this strange presidential nomination season in which each obscure primary is treated as if it were the night of the presidential election, when have they been right?

You know just who I’m talking about. Before we’re done — as with some losing sports team on a record-setting roll — the season’s entertainment may consist of rooting for them never to be right, straight through November 4, 2008. They could be the Buffalo Bills, who lost four Super Bowls in four consecutive years, or, more humbly, this year’s Miami Dolphins, who went 0-13, and became a national news phenomenon, before winning their first game.

These days, when you read anything about the next stop on the presidential primary local, as in this passage, even from a sharp observer like Michael Tomasky, you should run for the hills or head for the nearest bookie to plunk your money on a Giuliani loss: “It’s also suddenly plausible that Rudy Giuliani, who I still think may be the party’s strongest candidate for November, could elbow his way back into this thing. He’s counting on a win in Florida, which votes on January 29.”

Investigative journalist for the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh caught this spirit in a recent interview when he said: “If I knew this, I mean, who would win [the presidential race], I’d be at the race track everyday. Not reporting… No one knows. Listen, this is politics, and I’m just a guy who writes, who writes stories about the war.”

And don’t think sports is the worst analogy to use here either. After all they love it. They talk about “handicapping” each primary and, as if it were indeed a crucial bowl game, endless “high-stakes moments.” So think of the collective media (not leaving out their good right arm, the prolific pollsters) as the Miami Dolphins of this political season, already nearing 0-13 and surging toward a record — and we’re barely out of the first quarter in the slog to the presidency. At a time when TV’s fiction writers are MIA and much of TV life is deep in reruns and reality-show hell, political pundits, reporters, and talking heads, writer-less as they may be, can do no wrong by doing primary-season wrong. The political ratings are already smashing. As CNN/USA Today President Jonathan Klein puts it, without a sitting president or vice president in the race, these primaries are “like ‘The Apprentice.’ Except that you’re the ones that get to say ‘You’re Fired.’ ”

So I’m ready to handicap this one. The little media nag that couldn’t probably can’t. It isn’t coming up from the rear; it won’t win, place, or show, but when it gets one right, as when Miami won, that will be national news. In the meantime, consider just why this beast has no brain, as explained by one of the canniest media critics around, Jay Rosen, whose Pressthink blog is a must-read in any season. In his twentieth year of “horse-race criticism,” he’s long been involved in the attempt to provide alternative forms of coverage. Tom

The Beast Without a Brain

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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