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July 12, 2006

box score political reporting

One of the standard clichés of journalism is the treatment of political news as if it were a sport. Each event is described as a victory or a defeat for a particular politician. For instance, here's how the two papers that I read over breakfast this morning reported the latest Administration policy on prisoners:

The New York Times: The new policy "reverses a position the White House had held since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it represents a victory for those within the administration who argued that the United States' refusal to extend Geneva protections to Qaeda prisoners was harming the country's standing abroad."

The Washington Post: "The developments underscored how the administration has been forced to retreat from its long-standing position."

The Administration's change of position was a defeat: that's a fact. And it's undeniable (almost tautological) that the shift was a "victory" for those who opposed the status quo. But reporters could choose many other facts to provide: for example, information about what has been done to various prisoners. The reliance on political wins and losses has the following serious drawbacks:

1) It encourages laziness. You don't have to do any actual reporting to figure out that an event is good or bad for a politician.

2) It reinforces the notion that politics is a spectator sport, in which the important question is "Who's winning?" (not, "What's happening?").

3) It adds to the political cost that incumbents incur when they change course for good reasons. When George Bush found out that Abu Zubaydah, whom he had described as Al-Qaeda's chief of operations, was mentally ill and of no consequence, he supposedly told CIA Director George Tenet, "I said he was important. You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" If that's true, it's evidence of almost criminal irresponsibility. But Bush also knew that if he changed his position, the press would report that as a sign of weakness--a "setback" or "defeat"--instead of allowing the president to take credit for learning. Reporting politics as a box-score only increases the odds that leaders will act like Bush.

(In fairness, I should note that after I read this morning's papers and decided to write this post, I looked around for other examples of box-score journalism on the prisoner issue. The AP, Reuters, and L.A. Times stories really did not use that frame.)

July 12, 2006 8:00 PM | category: press criticism | Comments


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