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What I Hate About Political Coverage

by Paul Krugman

Warning: this is a bit (actually, more than a bit) of a rant.

One of my pet peeves about political reporting is the fact that some of my journalistic colleagues seem to want to be in another business - namely, theater criticism. Instead of telling us what candidates are actually saying - and whether it's true or false, sensible or silly - they tell us how it went over, and how they think it affects the horse race. During the 2004 campaign I went through two months' worth of TV news from the major broadcast and cable networks to see what voters had been told about the Bush and Kerry health care plans; what I found, and wrote about, were several stories on how the plans were playing, but not one story about what was actually in the plans.

There are two big problems with this kind of reporting. The important problem is that it fails to inform the public about what matters. In 2004, very few people had any idea about the very real differences between the candidates on domestic policy. It remains to be seen whether 2008 is any better.

The other problem, which has become very apparent lately, is that this sort of coverage often fails even on its own terms, because the way things look to inside-the-Beltway pundits can be very different from the way they look to real people.

Which brings me to the Petraeus hearing.

To a remarkable extent, punditry has taken a pass on whether Gen. Petraeus's picture of the situation in Iraq is accurate. Instead, it was all about the theatrics - about how impressive he looked, how well or poorly his Congressional inquisitors performed. And the judgment you got if you were watching most of the talking heads was that it was a big win for the administration - especially because the famous MoveOn ad was supposed to have created a scandal, and a problem for the Democrats.

Even if all this had been true, it wouldn't have mattered much: if the truth is that Iraq is a mess, the public would find out soon enough, and the backlash would be all the greater because of the sense that we had been deceived yet again.

But here's the thing: new polls by CBS and Gallup show that the Petraeus testimony had basically no effect on public opinion: Americans continue to hate the war, and want out. The whole story about how the hearing had changed everything was a pure figment of the inside-the-Beltway imagination.

What I found striking about the whole thing was the contempt the pundit consensus showed for the public - it was, more or less, "Oh, people just can't resist a man in uniform." But it turns out that they can; it's the punditocracy that can't. Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a regular New York Times columnist. His most recent book is The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century.

© 2007 The New York Times

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