How the Media Flubbed Up Down South

John L. Perry
February 20, 2000

"Write down these clichés, memorize them and never write them again," a veteran of many political campaigns told a wet-behind-the-ears reporter decades ago. The forbidden words were:

"Up for grabs."

"Too close to call."

"Dead heat."

"Neck to neck."

"Come from behind."

"Gaining momentum."


"Down to the wire."

But . . . but . . . what's wrong with those?

You want to be a sports writer, nothing. You want to be a political reporter, learn to report politics.

It was a lesson learned by a vanishing breed of genuine journalists.

In their place have come along a couple of generations of arrested adolescents who have never learned that politics is another word for an applied liberal education – economics, geography, history, sociology, political science, psychology, philosophy, agriculture, transportation, medicine, law, literature, anthropology, religion . . . for starters.

That is why the press did such a miserable job reporting the Feb. 19 South Carolina Republican primary.

No one bothered to instruct them:

Learn first how all those things and a lot more work within the American culture, then you're ready to learn how to report an election campaign.

First thing you learn is a campaign's not a race.

The story is not who's handicapped to win or by how much.

The story is not who's ahead by a nose or a length at the first turn, or along the back stretch, or rounding the last turn or coming down the home stretch.

The story is not who lost – names quickly forgotten.

The story is not really who won or by how much.

The story is what social and economic forces were at play in shaping the campaign.

The story is what issues were ignored, what issues were in collision, what issues survived.

The story is what forks in the road were taken.

The story is what the winner does after winning.

An election campaign is a fleeting moment in history that makes it possible to shape history.

There's only one way to know what's going on in a campaign, and that's to get away from the candidates and the campaign and next to the people who do the voting.

And you'll not be able to understand what they can tell you unless you know how to put it in the context of economics, geography, history, sociology, political science, psychology, philosophy, agriculture, transportation, medicine, law, literature, anthropology, religion . . . for starters.

A political reporter's job is not to call a horse race, but to explain all those other factors in a way that people will understand as they go to vote.

That's not editorializing. It's reporting what things mean, and not what the reporter wishes they'd mean, either.

There's no way to cover politics without wearing out a lot of shoe leather.

After the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries there was still an awful lot of slick shoe leather among the establishment news-media elite.

They fell on their faces in failing to understand and report the multiple forces at work in New Hampshire that gave John McCain his strong victory over George W. Bush.

Then they turned right around and did a farcical pratfall, failing to understand and report the multiple forces at work in South Carolina that gave Bush his strong victory over McCain.

In any other line of work – airline piloting, dentistry, steeple climbing, marriage counseling, professional golf, bedpan changing – that would be failure enough to induce early retirement.

Not the press. They and their un-indicted co-conspirators, the opinion pollsters, never miss a beat. Every time they split their pants, they hop right up, without even bothering to wipe the egg from their faces, and lumber along, doing the same thing all over again.

Why not? No one points out what incompetents they have been.

In South Carolina, those in the mainstream news media who weren't conceding the election to McCain were pontificating with false modesty that it was "too close to call."

Came the morning after, Bush had received 53 percent of the vote, McCain 42 and Alan Keys 5. "Too close to call."

Was that the dread liberal bias at work in the media? Possibly.

But the non-mainstream media, including the self-described "fair and balanced" FoxNews Channel, was just as bad, both in missing the call by a country mile and in giving the black conservative Keyes the go-sit-in-the-back-of-the-bus treatment as blatantly as did the "liberal" racist press.

Bias abounds, but in this instance the coverage was knee-deep in just plain, old-fashion journalistic incompetence.

Look as these examples of the news media's failure to do the job, overcome by the fumes of their own ego exhausts:

• In New Hampshire, the press failed to pick up on the large number of new voters McCain attracted to his cause until after the vote.

When it became obvious to all that a tidal wave of new voters was surging in South Carolina, the press just knew they had to be independents and Democrats and that McCain was the indisputable beneficiary.

If McCain activated them, he now wishes he hadn't. Instead of independents and Democrats – the ones McCain was trying to attract – it was Republicans primarily who showed up. Sixty-one percent of those voting were Republicans, 30 percent were independents and only 9 percent were Democrats.

• Even before New Hampshire, some in the press were giving McCain the win in South Carolina because so many veterans have retired there.

Who could have imagined veterans are like other people, with minds of their own? They split just about even between McCain and Bush. So much for the "veterans' vote" invented by the press.

• The press wrapped Bush in a dark mantle of negativism. He was the one with "negative" commercials directed at McCain, the media bleated over and over.

Interviews with actual voters as they left the polls showed most of them thought McCain was the one being negative. But, then, what do they know?

• In the one televised debate in South Carolina, CNN's Larry King surprised everyone by asking some pertinent questions, devoting a third of the 90 minutes to foreign policy – the first time the issue has been treated seriously in this campaign.

What did the news media do? They decided foreign policy – not on their agenda because they know less about the rest of the world than do the candidates – was to be one of those trees that falls in the forest: resounding silence. In their post-debate coverage, it barely got a mention.

• The news media have treated Keyes shamefully, all the way from shunning him from network-television major interviews, to actually laughing at him as Fred Barnes of the conservative Weekly Standard did on FoxNews Channel, to playing Scrabble with his photo as some newspapers and Web sites did.

The one place where Keyes received professional journalistic treatment was in an honest analysis, "The Invisible Man," by William Saletan on the Slate commentary Web site Feb. 16:

"If you watched last night's Republican presidential debate in South Carolina . . . you'd be hard pressed not to conclude that Alan Keyes won it. If, however, you missed the debate and read about it in this morning's newspapers, you'd hardly know Keyes was there.

"Ignoring single-digit candidates is standard practice in political journalism, but the coverage of last night's debate provides a particularly egregious illustration of how this practice makes a mockery of democracy."

Saletan then detailed one point after another where Keyes had mastered both Bush and McCain, adding:

"Why is the focus on Bush and McCain? Not because they won the debate on style or on substance. Indeed, not because of anything that happened in the debate.

"The focus is on them because it was on them before the debate began. In short, the focus was rigged.

"And who controls the focus? The same people who pass off 'the focus' as an objective force that dictates which candidates make the headlines and which don't. The media."

With eight more months yet to go, the 2000 campaign for the presidency is still a distorted reflection of only the surface of American society, beneath which – like deep, massive thermals – surge issues that will not be denied answers.

And that's the good news.

The persistent news is that it remains in the hands of largely incompetent people who purport to be journalists, yet have never been taught how to report politics – let alone to comprehend what politics is actually about.

John L. Perry, a prize-winning newspaper editor and writer who served on White House staffs of two presidents, is Senior Editor and a regular columnist for and Internet Vortex.
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22 feb 2000