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Tags: horse race mode | reporters | government

Reporters Should Avoid Perpetual Horse Race Mode

a democrat donkey and a republican elephant riding on rocking horses

Paul F. deLespinasse By Tuesday, 21 September 2021 09:21 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Politicians who fail to shift from campaign mode to governing mode after they are elected do not provide the leadership good government requires. Anticipating this shift, columnist James Reston assured his readers in 1976 that newly elected President Jimmy Carter was not going to "swallow his own campaign baloney."

Likewise, reporters perpetually stuck in campaign mode don't provide the nuanced news perspective needed to encourage effective citizen participation.

In campaign mode, politicians oversimplify issues, telling voters what they want to hear.

They exaggerate and simplify. They make promises that couldn't possibly all be carried out. They emit a great deal of baloney.

Carrying out some of their promises would be incompatible with carrying out others. Their promises are often unrealistic since implementing them usually requires cooperation from other parts of the government, cooperation which cannot easily be gotten.

When they have switched into governing mode, political leaders stop holding campaign rallies. They stop oversimplifying the measures needed to tackle national problems.

They try to educate the public to face reality rather than repeatedly telling people what they want to hear.

Too many reporters and commentators, however, remain stuck in their own campaign (or what we might call "horse race") mode. Even when elections are far in the future, they continually discuss the impact of leaders' policy decisions on their current public opinion poll ratings and chances for re-election.

Horse race reporting takes time otherwise available to report important facts and help people understand the complexity of actual life, the conflicting considerations reflected by all governmental decisions.

This kind of reporting does not encourage leaders to focus on governing rather than acting as if they were campaigning all the time.

When elections are not in the immediate future, polls about a president's popularity are generally not worth the paper they are printed on or the airtime it takes to present them.

Today's heroes are tomorrow's villains, and vice versa. Public support is extremely fickle.

For example, immediately after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 President George H.W. Bush was polling very high, and yet a year later he was defeated by Bill Clinton. The Bible reports that Jesus rode into town greeted by enthusiastic hosannas, but a week later the mob was yelling "Crucify him!"

Although I have been an organist for many decades, I have never played in a big cathedral. But as I understand it, in large cathedrals organists must maintain a steady pace and not pay attention to the singing while accompanying congregational hymns.

Since sound travels slowly, the words of the congregation will be delayed in reaching the organist. It will sound to the organist as if he or she is playing too fast and should slow down.

But slowing down would be disastrous and could ignite a vicious circle of further slowdowns. A good organist must lead, not follow, the congregation.

As columnist David Brooks said recently on the PBS News Hour, "we elect people for terms for a reason. And that reason is, sometimes, they have to do unpleasant things that are going to make them unpopular."

A president who pays too much attention to immediate popularity as indicated by polling will be tempted to engage in erratic changes and cannot focus on consistent and effective policy.

An effective president should basically ignore public opinion polls and stick to doing the best possible job. Ironically, this could actually make re-election most likely.

Good reporting should encourage, not discourage, leaders to operate in governing mode most most of the time, kicking into campaign mode only right before elections. If the reporters themselves would avoid constantly treating every leadership decision as part of a horse race, it would help.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.

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Reporters perpetually stuck in campaign mode don't provide the nuanced news perspective needed to encourage effective citizen participation.
horse race mode, reporters, government
Tuesday, 21 September 2021 09:21 AM
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