Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BUILDING A BETTER PRESS CORPS....How do we get a better press corps? Brad DeLong and Ezra Klein say the answer is to insist that reporters have more expertise in the subjects they cover. Today, Brad pushes this theme further by highlighting the following from one of his commenters:

I repeat my previous suggestion for the "baseball test." A reporter should not be assigned to cover subject X unless he has as good an understanding of X as a baseball writer is expected to have of baseball.

Man, does this seem backward. If you asked me what was wrong with big-league political reporting in this country, I'd say its biggest problem is that is has too much in common with big league sports writing. Reporters like Adam Nagourney and John Harris don't lack for expertise in politics, after all. They have trainloads of it. Their problem is precisely that they treat politics the way sportwriters treat baseball: as a game, in which both sides are equivalent, you're not supposed to play favorites, you favor polls and statistics over substantive (but boring!) analysis, trivia is a source of endless fascination, and a clever bon mot is irresistable regardless of whether it's actually fair or accurate.

I realize that arguing against reporters having more expertise is like arguing against apple pie, but really, lack of expertise just isn't journalism's biggest problem. It might be in the top ten, maybe even the top five, but it sure isn't #1. Priorities, people.

Kevin Drum 6:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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Sportswriters do play favorites. Writers in NY cover the games from a Yankee or Met point of view, in St Louis the baseball stories take the Cards' point of view.

If the MSM did this, we'd hear a lot more positive stories about the Dems and a lot more negative (aka 'factual') stories on the Repubs.

Posted by: EastFallowfield on August 14, 2007 at 6:10 PM | PERMALINK

See, I guess I think Mr. DeLong is thinking that the subject isn't politics, but policy... If we wanted discussion about politics as politics, then the authors mentioned are as good as others, but if you're talking about health delivery or fiscal policy or foreign policy, then knowing who the Sunday talkers are isn't as helpful.

On the other hand, Kevin has it right -- we do get too much "inside baseball" reporting about plitics.

Posted by: -mike- on August 14, 2007 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

I do think that the people you cite understand politics, but they don't understand policy (or econ, or the tax system, or math, or other things that count for a lot in policy).

Hence, this is the problem, as it is those types of reporters that write about politics, but that is also the only place that anyone who reads them is exposed to policy. We don't have policy reporting in conjunction with politics, hence all we have is "the game" and everyone remains stupid about things such as health care plans, tax cuts, deficits, etcl.

Posted by: abject funk on August 14, 2007 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

I somewhat agree.

But if the writers are saying that reporters should have a basic knowledge of how government works, and the issues that are of concern to Americans, then I agree with them.

Most beltway reporters could give a rat's ass about the plight of the average American. So writing about health care, wages and the like is a bore compared to writing about the political intrigues of the Washington elites.

When I got my J-degree I matched with a political science minor. Today, many of those installed into the Washington press corps have J-degrees obtained from Liberty University.

No wonder they suck.

Posted by: Dicksknee on August 14, 2007 at 6:15 PM | PERMALINK

EastFallowfield: Point taken. On the other hand, being called a "homer" isn't exactly a compliment in the sports biz.

And on the national level, which is where the comparison is most apt, sportswriters and announcers very definitely aren't supposed to take sides.

There are other problems with the whole "expertise" theme, the biggest of which is that only a few reporters cover a narrow enough beat for a long enough time to develop big-league expertise in a subject. That's mainly a problem of raw economics and there isn't any wonderful solution to it.

I do think national reporters could do a better job of developing expertise in their fields, but I still don't think it's our #1 problem. I'm not sure where I'd put it on the list, but probably around #6 or #7 or so. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on August 14, 2007 at 6:18 PM | PERMALINK

Reporters want to be liked, popular, and invited to all the good parties.

That is the main problem. And, of course, no REAL stories to cover like a money-losing land deal in Arkansas.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on August 14, 2007 at 6:19 PM | PERMALINK

This really isn't such a problem. The solution is management. Management guides the direction the outlet takes and that direction is seen by us as the outlet's character/bias/whatever.

Roger Ailes has exactly the newsroom environment he wants because he has a vision of what it should be and works to make it so. His environment is reprehensible to most of us, but where he would reprimand someone for reporting something straight, a good newsroom manager/editor should reprimand when someone doesn't get something straight.

There's really not any other way for it to work. How will we acquire these subject matter experts and ensure that they produce a good product without management.

So, how do you fix news? Create an environment where straight news is the standard enforced.

Posted by: bubba on August 14, 2007 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

Abject funk: Absolutely. But in fairness, the audience counts too. You can't write stuff that people don't read, and most people just won't tolerate lots of long, wonky policy pieces. I'm honestly not sure what the answer is here.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on August 14, 2007 at 6:21 PM | PERMALINK

I see someone upthread already beat me to it, but to pile on a bit: my immediate response was, "They're not talking about expertise in POLITICS. They're talking about expertise in actual fields of human activity and study." E.g., economics, engineering, the sciences, criminal justice, etc.

Strange that I should agree with that, since back when I was an aspiring reporter I was a veritable poster child for the "generalist-turned-journalist" model. I had my degree in Poly Sci, and thought that would equip me well for a career as a reporter. Ha! It does give you certain skills, but I don't think journalism is necessarily one of them.

Posted by: Roger Keeling on August 14, 2007 at 6:22 PM | PERMALINK

The trouble is not they report it as a game, but they report the wrong game. They treat it as American Idol, where everything turns on largely pointless polls of public opinion. The real game is Pork.

What does Duke Cunningham or Watergate have to do with public policy? Politics is a good story. Favors traded, alliance formed and broken. Allies betrayed, enemies defeated. Thats good copy.

Posted by: jimmy on August 14, 2007 at 6:23 PM | PERMALINK

Make all journalists freelance.

If they can't make their own name, then f*ck 'em. Why let them get a free ride on the promotion of a big-name news organization?

Who would have ever heard of a hack like Wolf Blitzer if it weren't for CNN? Would Shep Smith have ever graduated from Weatherman-gofer had he not stapled a steamy sexual fantasy he had about George Bush to his resume when he applied at FoxNews? Don't even get me started on Tony Snow.

And Larry King? Please. It's the notoriety of his guests. Certainly not HIM.

Posted by: osama_been_forgotten on August 14, 2007 at 6:23 PM | PERMALINK

It would be better for journalism if experts wrote every story.

But it would be bad for the readers who would have to pay $150 for their daily newspaper.

Posted by: Alex Parker on August 14, 2007 at 6:26 PM | PERMALINK

The typical sportswriters actually have very little expertise in regards to the sports they cover. It is a little better than in years past, largely due to influence of advanced statistical analysis of sports, mostly in baseball, but abject ignorance on the part of sportswriters rules the profession still, as any examination of (before last year) how commonly tropes like "Peyton Manning can't win the big one", or other such nonsense is printed in newspapers.

Posted by: Will Allen on August 14, 2007 at 6:29 PM | PERMALINK

Wait, wait... isn't this longing for "experts" in journalism completely ignoring our concurrent bitchfest precisely about the danger of listening to experts??

Posted by: bubba on August 14, 2007 at 6:30 PM | PERMALINK

Journalists need what sports has loads of: balls.

I think that's the real 'baseball test.'

Posted by: jer on August 14, 2007 at 6:31 PM | PERMALINK

Of course one problem with this analogy is that many baseball beat writers don't actually know much about baseball, and spend their time stroking the egos of the players they cover.

The whole point of the sabermetrics revolution (Bill James et. al.) was that much of the conventional wisdom to which baseball "experts" clung, most emphatically including sportswriters, was actually bullshit.

Hey it really is like politics.

Posted by: Paul Campos on August 14, 2007 at 6:31 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe the problem is not expertise per se, but the willingness to put it to use.

In sports, if manager A says that Lefty Jones was the first left-hander to win a World Series game, and manager B says that it wasn't a win, it was a save, the sportswriters will check the records and report the story as "A is right, B is wrong."

In politics, not so much. If Politician A says "I served in Vietnam and earned two purple hearts" and Politician B sends out spokesmen to say "It was just a bandaid, and he was a coward," our fine political reporters don't bother to verify the facts. The story is reported as "A said, B said."

Posted by: thersites on August 14, 2007 at 6:34 PM | PERMALINK

I think Kevin's right here.

Inadequate expertise is at most a secondary issue, in my view.

It would be a revolution in American journalism if, finally, reporters would honestly report what they already do know, instead of engaging in brainless he-said-she-said.

I don't know why this should be so hard. During election cycles, reporters and media outlets do often engage in fact-checking political ads. It's simply the same concept, universally applied to all talk from politicians.

They really just need give themselves permission to do so. It's the underlying body of journalistic mores that must be changed. These really aren't etched in stone, let's remember.

Posted by: frankly0 on August 14, 2007 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK

Reporters' ignorance of and indifference to substance is a symptom, not the disease. As I've harped on in many another thread, the real problem is concentrated media ownership.

Reporters cover things in the way they do because that is what those who hire them want. Covering politics solely as a horse race is safe because it's far less likely to piss off anyone powerful who will make trouble for media owners, who are very likely to own a lot on non-journalistic stuff that angry politicians could mess with. Being obsequious and going along with idiotic conventional narratives is safe for the same reason. (Of course, since Democratic politicians are less likely to have major right-wing sugar daddies, it's much safer for corporate media outlets to bait them - thus the dramatic differences we've seen in coverage of the Clinton vs. the Bush administration.)

WRT the specific problem Brad is facing (idiotic, simpleminded economics coverage), the source of it isn't some lack of expertise on the part of reporters. It's the fact that bad reporting is what's beneficial to those who own the media outlets. You can bet that if having good economics reporting would benefit corporate owners, then we'd see it in the papers. The fact that we don't have it is a sign that, at best, they don't care about having it, or worse, they prefer not having it.

The problem doesn't really stem from the reporters themselves, it comes from the way the corporate ownership structure encourages a degenerate form of journalism. This form is so pervasive that I suspect most of the current crop of reporters is unsalvageable. But we can't even begin the job of improving the class of reporters until we've destroyed the system that rewards them for being bad.

Posted by: jimBOB on August 14, 2007 at 6:38 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Kevin, the problem isnt experience, it's how to think abount the subject your reporting.

Now before everybody goes YES OF COURSE! Let me explain.

During the run up to the Iraq war, the media focused on war plans, Saddam's behavior, would the iraqi's individually or collectively hug Bill Kristol.

I tried to focus in on the inspections. Much was made about intelligence(turned out to be all wrong.) when that was the wrong way to think about the run up to the war.

Inspections, if you think about it, are the best kind of intelligence. Inspections were derided as a joke.

Inspections would have gathered realtime intel, confirmed or denied satellite intel, and best of all, given us the sites across Iraq that had to be secured(WMD's ain't welded to the ground ya know!)

Keeping inspector's in Iraq would have deflated the administations case.

Media focus on the inspections would do the same.

After the administation told inspectors to leave I told friends, the game is on.

The inspection process was the canery inthe coalmine as to whether or not the administation lied.

Posted by: DonkeyKong on August 14, 2007 at 6:40 PM | PERMALINK

Expertise in "politics" is scarcely expertise at all. The problems come up when politicians make substantive claims or arguments, and the reporters lack the background to judge convincingly whether said claims are full of s***. So the point Klein and DeLong are making is that a candidate's claims on global warming should be evaluated by the paper's environment reporter, who will say "Romney's claim that the 'science is still out' is wrong, according to the overwhelming consensus of scientists..." rather than by the paper's politics reporter, who will say "Romney made a strong bid for the support of economic conservatives by saying the 'science is still out' on global warming."

Posted by: brooksfoe on August 14, 2007 at 6:45 PM | PERMALINK

I've often thought that reporters covering politics and government should study, in a formal way, politics and government. A few public administration courses and political science courses would do them some good.

Some reporters never seem to get a feel for how the government works. They don't comprehend the workings of Congress. When the Republicans took over and threw out all tradition and drastically changed and abused rules and procedures, many reporters had no perspective. They were very susceptible to the canard “it’s all just politics as usual, both sides are always doing it.”

When the Office of Special Plans was established in the Pentagon for the sole purpose of propaganda, unknowledgeable reporters were slow to comprehend what was going on.

The Bush administration was able to sell the war by taking advantage of incompetent reporters not well schooled in government. A few knowledgeable reporters saw through the aluminum tubes fiasco and the uranium from Africa fiasco. Savvy reporters could see that there was not much to go on.


Posted by: little ole jim from red country on August 14, 2007 at 7:05 PM | PERMALINK

Let's change the analogy to auto writers. I'll take a Dan Neil full throated indictment of GM as the type of writing I would like to see in electoral coverage. Take the damn gloves off. Kudos to the LA Times for backing up their ace, Pulitzer winning writer. Boos and hisses to GM for being thin skinned enough to pull their advertising instead of making better cars.

Neil doesn't have to interact daily with the GM leadership like sportswriters do with the teams they cover. Journalists covering politics ought to follow the Neil model. No more parties with the Prez.

Posted by: Common Sense on August 14, 2007 at 7:14 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, the comparison is usually with horse racing, but I don't know if they still have reporters permanently assigned to Belmont and Hialeah.

Posted by: Kenji on August 14, 2007 at 7:16 PM | PERMALINK

When the Office of Special Plans was established in the Pentagon for the sole purpose of propaganda, unknowledgeable reporters were slow to comprehend what was going on.
The Bush administration was able to sell the war by taking advantage of incompetent reporters not well schooled in government. A few knowledgeable reporters saw through the aluminum tubes fiasco and the uranium from Africa fiasco. Savvy reporters could see that there was not much to go on.
Posted by: little ole jim from red country on August 14, 2007 at 7:05 PM | PERMALINK


jim;
There's also the fact that after 9/11, some intelligence "interns" (nobody was sure if they were CIA or DIA) came to work at fine companies like CNN. If you think this didn't have a chilling effect on the kinds of questions that ill-informed but otherwise curious or well-intentioned journalists might have brought up - ESPECIALLY given the media-ownership situation, and all the other things going on with regard to rendition, spying, etc. then I'd like to know what y'all are smoking.

Posted by: osama_been_forgotten on August 14, 2007 at 7:20 PM | PERMALINK

How about each major media outlet taking the initiative, and begin rotating the assignments of their own members of the Washington press corps?

Clearly, something must be done to reinstate and maintain a very necessary tension that must exist between the powers-that-be and the Fourth Estate, and reignite a healthy sense of professional competition between the media's various elements.

The Valerie Plame affair -- a deplorable episode that may well have compromised for years our country's intelligence capabilities in the Middle East -- occurred in large part because certain particular elements of the DC press corps began to identify too closely with the subjects they were ostensibly covering, either as friends, drinking buddies on the Beltway cocktail circuit, etc. This is just one example of many in recent history where the needed tension line between government and press went slack, with stunningly bad consequences for our country.

Given that, it should hardly been a surprise that conservative columnist Bob Novak and the New York Times' Judith Miller would have knowingly and actively aided and abetted their mutual friend I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in the willful commission of a serious felony. Meanwhile, while the rest of their Beltway compatriots and pundits violated almost every heretofore accepted tenet of their own profession by either looking the other way and ignoring the story, or defending their colleagues' actions out of a misguided sense of loyalty to one another.

While I was on the staff of my high school paper, our faculty advisor, Mrs. Mason, was a former long-time newspaper reporter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. She always warned us off stories about either our own friends or our own activities, lest we risk compromising our story by becoming an active element within it, urging us instead to pass it off to a fresh set of objective eyes and ears. The story always took precendence over the personality.

I have to believe that the D.C. press corps could only benefit by having within its ranks more honest-to-God gumshoe reporters like the Press-Telegram's chain-smoking Mrs. Mason, and a few less multimedia personalities like the ubiquitous Howard Fineman of Newsweek and MSNBC.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on August 14, 2007 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

Most often, sports writers' mistakes arise from watching the wrong player. This is more evident in sports, such as baseball, than in real life, because more people understand baseball and can spot the traps.

While the MSM is focused on its latest shiny object, as it is with Karl Rove, we look into the dugout to see what the manager signals as the next move.

George W. Bush: Watch your back. The pickoff play is coming. Might even be the old "hidden ball" trick.

Rumsfeld, your military genius (1st base coach) is gone.

Karl Rove, your "architect" (3rd base coach) is gone.

You're the only guy left on base....

Watch the guy in the dugout. He's got a plan.

Posted by: wileycat on August 14, 2007 at 7:40 PM | PERMALINK

Sports reporters seem to be more knowledgeable about their subjects and more ethical about their coverage than political reporters these days.

Bob Costas refused to do a fluff story when he was subbing for Larry King a year or so ago. He's a sports reporter.

I believe that the great Charles Pierce learned all he knows about politics as a sports reporter.

Keith Olberman comes out of sports reporting.

Noam Chomsky makes the point that people talk with more knowledge and insight about sports issues than about politics. He also believed that business news requires real numbers, a stance that may change now that Murdoch owns the WSJ.

Posted by: gmoke on August 14, 2007 at 7:42 PM | PERMALINK

I asked Adam Nagourney about torture once at Harvard. He replied by asking me my opinion on abortion.

Later, I showed him the way to YearlyKos in Las Vegas and he remembered me, saying that as a political reporter he had to be careful about answering questions like that.

I have a very low opinion of Adam Nagourney.

Posted by: gmoke on August 14, 2007 at 7:46 PM | PERMALINK

The worst part of covering politics is the requirement of balance. In this political cycle, since 1992, the Repukeliscum have been far more dirty in their politics than the Dems. This is easily demonstrated. In the 2006 cycle, the Repukeliscum used fake automated telephone calls where they pretended to be from one side (the Democrats) when they were actually from the Repukeliscum. Not a single Dem did this, and possibly 20 Repukeliscum did. Yet, when this is reported, they will pretend that there is balance. It's wrong to pretend that there is balance.

Posted by: POed Lib on August 14, 2007 at 7:49 PM | PERMALINK

What donkeykong - 6:40 p.m. - said.

It all depends on where you're looking.

Posted by: wileycat on August 14, 2007 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I think you are confusing politics with policy. It takes no expertise whatsoever to cover politics. After all, it is nothing more than a specialized niche of gossip columnists. Who paid what for a haircut, who got the biggest applause line in the debate, did Hillary smack down Obama or did Obama have a clever retort.

Policy is about things like taxes, welfare, health care, employment and the economy. It requires a generous knowledge of mathematics and at least a passing familiarity with statistics -- like the difference between mean and median -- and context like whether $10 billion a large part or a tiny part of GDP.

The current pundits are just English majors with a journalism degree (LOL). Why would anyone think they are qualified to report of anything of substance other than political gossip?

Posted by: Joe on August 14, 2007 at 7:57 PM | PERMALINK

Bubba nailed it - the editors are the ones responsible for the story that we finally see in print. They are also responsible for managing their reporters. When year after year we see the so-called "Washington Press Corps" lobbing softball questions at the press secretary du jour, we should be asking ourselves why the editors aren't putting the heat on their reporters.
And the answer is that the editors are being pressed by the owners/managers not to make waves - it might hurt your ability to make contacts or anger some group or advertiser. Or the owner/manager just doesn't want it, for whatever reason.
Unless the owner/manager is fully dedicated to the idea of actually reporting the news (and backs up his/her editors and reporters) the people who report and edit the news will look on their jobs as just that - jobs. Most people do not deliberately try to get fired.

Posted by: Doug on August 14, 2007 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

This is a hilariously unhelpful debate.

I'm from a trade that's doing everything in its power to shed experienced, expensive workers for less costly ones. The universe of reporting jobs that reward decades of knowledge has shrunk rapidly over the past few years, and will continue doing so.

To go back to the baseball writer comparison: Being knowledgeable about baseball is a necessary but insufficient requirement for writing sports today. If you want to have a full career, you need to be able to pontificate -- to have something to say, and a distinct way of saying it -- in print and television.

And let's remember that baseball writers have far less influence over the game they cover than political reporters do. You don't see players cycling between the newsroom and the dugout, or coaches regularly petitioning the media hordes for advice.

In my experience, subject matter knowledge matters less than news sense, and the desire to write the best truth available. Good inexperienced reporters can sometimes crack into a beat in ways that veterans have overlooked.

This whole discussion has a print-centric view, as most of the people reading this blog are leftish policy types who enjoy long written discourse. Good for them -- because there are more outlets offering that work for lower cost than ever before, including this one. But long think pieces are no longer the norm in mass market print publications, which feel financially squeezed from all sides into shedding staff and space. As their market shrinks, they have to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

The best reporters have a will to truth that trumps their shortcomings. They'll find a way to tell their story. I just hope they get paid what they're worth.

Posted by: Modest Anonymouse on August 14, 2007 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

Real reporting is not a matter of letting knowledge out, but of letting it in. While it is valuable to have amassed expertise on issues such as health care, military spending or infrastructure -- passing along that expertise is what a book writer does, not what a reporter does.

Good reporters learn while reporting a story. They don't know all the answers, but they have a pretty good idea how to find them. Sometimes they talk to book writers. And good reporters are painfully aware of what they don't know -- unlike the familiar TV "experts" who are paid to project confidence and authority at all times.

Excellent reporters learn and care too.

Posted by: Walter Crockett on August 14, 2007 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe I'm a young 'un who is among the media jaded?

In the political world, someone telling me that he believes that Snowflake Children should be counted as life doesn't matter. Fine. The dude believes it. What matters is the consequences of following his policy. I want a reporter with experience to expend a couple of sentences gaming that out. From his experience. What are the costs associated with treating embryos as humans?

Likewise, a politician telling me that "everything is just fine in Iraq" is meaningless. Again, game it out for me. Even if things don't get any worse, and we ask for one more Friedman, how many of my countrymen and women are going to die? At the current burn rate, how much of my taxes are they going to go through? What effect will it have on the Army?

My problem is that the gaming is often political gamesmanship, not policy. I don't care about how Bush's over use of "stay the course" has changed people's perception of him, I want to know what the consequences to my money and my countrymen's lives.

Posted by: daniel on August 14, 2007 at 9:20 PM | PERMALINK

I am curious about the "economics" of reporting complaint.

The Washington Post.com seems to have no problem assigning Dan Froomkin to follow the President, just as many papers assign a high-powered journalist to sit around the White House press office. How many can match Froomkin for knowledge of politics (not policy)? How many bother?

Posted by: Bruce Wilder on August 14, 2007 at 9:43 PM | PERMALINK

Political correctness and news reporting are mutually exclusive.

Posted by: Luther on August 14, 2007 at 9:50 PM | PERMALINK

Clever bon mot? Is there another kind?

Posted by: eb on August 14, 2007 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK

Political journalists (but mainly the pundits) are like the average sports reporter in being more groupie than dispassionate observer--merely a higher (lower?) grade of jock sniffer. Politics, after all, is celebrity for unattractive people. That said, more sports reporters probably know their subject better, in agonizingly trivial detail. But in either case the fans usually know the facts better.

Posted by: dogofthesouth on August 14, 2007 at 10:13 PM | PERMALINK

I think the baseball analogy is right, for a deeper reason than the poster who noted that sabremetricians show that most baseball wisdom is simply wrong.

If baseball writers were all like Bill James, they wouldn't be baseball writers (even those who don't write): there's a great scene in Moneyball where Joe Morgan is dissing the whole Bill James/Billy Beane approach, arguing that you have "to manufacture runs", which he explains can only be done with guys who take chances, like stealing bases and bunting. You can't wait for a three run homer.

EXCEPT -- in the game he was describing, Soriano had stolen second shortly before Bernie Williams... hit a three run homer. Morgan's idea was that three run homer was CAUSED by Soriano's stealing, cuz it was risky. Yet if Soriano had been thrown out, Williams wouldn't have gotten to hit.

And while Morgan was describing how to "manufacture runs", the first Seattle guy at bat walked. But he didn't try to steal in order "to manufacture runs", and the next guy didn't bunt: he hit a double. THEN the third guy hit a three run homer.

Contradicting every word Morgan said -- and he evidently did not notice. He continued to insist that the key is to manufacture runs with steals and bunts, no matter what was happening on the field.

Observe the news coverage of Iraq, or immigration, and you will see the same pattern: the story writes the 'facts'.

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 14, 2007 at 10:32 PM | PERMALINK

How about no experts of "the game", politics, or campaign sloganeering. There are many other types of experts that could prove useful on occasion.

A reasonable solution might be to subsidize journalists and pundits for not writing or saying stupid things -- much the way we do farmers when there is a potential for a glut. I'd say the same for baseball writers if I ever read them.

Posted by: B on August 15, 2007 at 2:01 AM | PERMALINK

The problems with domestic reporting may or may not be different from those with foreign reporting. I live in Beirut, and I'm constantly surprised by the absolute ignorance of so many journalists who are assigned here or freelance here. Often, they not only don't know any Arabic, but are also totally unaware of some of the region's recent history.

We would laugh at an al-Jazeera correspondent who didn't speak English being sent to New York to cover the US, wouldn't we? Why are our standards so low when it comes to American foreign correspondents? I don't think it's too much to ask for a journalist to have a basic grasp of the Arabic language and Middle Eastern history before pretending to explain the region to a Western audience.

Posted by: sean on August 15, 2007 at 3:44 AM | PERMALINK

Too true, look at the backlash the early SABR guys got from the baseball writers. Obsession with RBIs when the batter has an extremely limited effect on whether his teammates get on base or not and so on...

Posted by: MNPundit on August 15, 2007 at 3:50 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, DeLong and gmoke and Chomsky are correct. The quality of sportswriting-- baseball writing in particular-- is orders of magnitude better than the quality of political writing.

Don't think so? Compare and contrast: Rush Limbaugh has had a national radio show since 1988, and most political reporters and broadcasters give him a great deal of deference. Limbaugh lasted less than three months as a pro football commentator (July 14, 2003-October 2). He quit after he'd been suspended and just before he was going to be fired, amid a torrent of outrage and scorn. Limbaugh's "smoking gun" was this quote:

"Sorry to say this, I don't think [Donovan McNabb has] been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

That's identical to the nonsense Limbaugh and the Republic Party have been peddling for decades. It's actually more factual than 99.999% of his comments about politics (Philadelphia's defense had ranked higher than its offense every year from 1999-2003, though there were good reasons for this).

But sportswriters pointed out that McNabb had (a) been voted to the Pro Bowl four times (more times than every other offensive player on the Eagles combined), (b) he played the most important position on a team that won 34 of 48 games and (c) had taken the Eagles to the NFC championship twice. They ridiculed the notion that he "hasn't been that good."

More importantly, they pointed out that Limbaugh's theory-- the media had hyped McNabb because they wanted a black quarterback to win recognition as a star-- rested upon a false statement (that no black quarterback had ever played well). They stated flatly that it insinuated that no black quarterback ever could be considered a star without the help of the media.

Limbaugh got hammered with counterexamples-- Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Steve McNair, Randall Cunningham, James Harris, Joe Gilliam-- and the racist foundation for his statement was stated flatly, in "he's either an idiot or a liar" form.

And when the right wing noise machine tried to crank up to support him, people hooted at them. John Lott (yes, THAT John Lott) produced a spreadsheet showing that black quarterbacks, based on games played, got more favorable comments and fewer negative comments than whites, and Fox News and Glenn Beck interviewed him about it.

The sportswriters responded the way political reporters never have handled his gun nonsense-- we doubt this is true, and if you can't show us your data, you probably made it up.

Name two national political writers who called Limbaugh out with equal force on his statements about John Kerry in 2004.

As a both a former sportswriter and political writer, I can point to a number of structural differences between sportswriting and political reporting, all of which favor sports:

1. In sports, every paper wants their game story to be different (in both tone and factual content) than the AP story. A beat writer who doesn't offer anything unique in style or content will get demoted.

As Tim Crouse and Ben Bagdikian first noted 35 years ago, political writers get criticized if their coverage of a campaign event is materially different than the AP, New York Times or Washington Post.

2. After every game, a sportswriter is required to state, in unambiguous terms, the reason for the win or loss by stating facts and to identify, IN HIS OWN WORDS, the people most responsible for the result.

Political reporters write vague descriptions of the daily events of the campaign in vague terms, usually relying on others to convey opinions, for fear of showing bias.

3. Most papers forbid their "beat reporters" (who report on the games and write analyses once a week) and "columnists" (who write periodic opinion pieces) from dining, drinking or socializing with the athletes, managers and executives they cover.

In politics, writers get prestige from being friends with candidates and staff. They frequently socialize together and often (e.g., Joe Klein) offer advice to candidates they consider friends.

4. Sportswriters make some use of anonymous sources, but this is usually confined to stories about front office events (trades, negotiations). Using quotes from "sources close to the team" is expected to be rare.

In politics, planted stories (Robert Novak) and stenography (Judy Miller) are considered standard practice and defended to the death

5. As DeLong, Chomsky and gmoke noted, sportswriters have substantial factual expertise. There are scads of performance statistics out there and most writers now use them to draw conclusions and present opinions.

Not everyone uses this data well, but a beat writer's Sunday column usually presents detailed data breaking down one or more areas of a team's performance. More importantly, the writer almost always confronts his subjects (player, manager or exec) with his findings and requires them to respond.

Most political reporters can't even realize that cutting taxes increases deficits. The analysis of data about the Social Security Trust fund, or the force levels needed to maintain peace in Iraq was fundamentally inept.

Covering the NBA or NFL requires a reporter to have extensive ability to write about contracts and arcane and confusing regulations. Sometimes even legal issues. They all hate it, but they all do it and some of them do it well.

How many political reporters have even minimal understanding of the U.S. Attorneys, campaign finance or FISA?

Last year, people took Karl Rove's "You have your math, I have THE math" as a statement worthy of careful analysis. If the GM of a losing team told writers that his club would win the championship-- that they were just too stupid to see why-- it would be lampooned as CYA and cluelessness.

And if a manager or GM announces that he's leaving to spend more time with his family, writers snort and point out how badly his team has been doing.

5. Sportswriters are expected to assess the performance and track records of the people they cover on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. They are required, as a result, to develop a knowledge of history and the ability and willingness to pass judgements.

Though many writers are biased, the facts at least are rarely in dispute. For example, even his apologists acknowledge that Marty Schottenheimer's record in the NFL playoffs has been wretched.

In politics? I've never seen a sports exec who failed with six different teams get respectful attention, but how many people suggested that having Bob Shrum running a seventh was the height of idiocy for the Democrats? Ken Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon are deemed "frequent critics" of the Iraq war (not unlike calling Matt Millen a "personnel wizard". General Petreus, who was in charge of distributing weapons to the peacekeeping forces (almost 200,000 of them are unaccounted for) is considered "the best general we have."

6. Sportswriters draw on a network of independent analysts with documented track records. It took guys like Bill James and Mel Kiper a long time to get respect from the media, but they won it by being right time and again. And more guys are building credentials on merit every year.

In politics, people like Al From and Marshall Wittman-- who have never been right-- are exalted as oracles. Bad as I think shows like Pardon the Interruption or Quite Frankly are, they offer substantially better analysis than Meet The Press, the McLaughlin Group or Crossfire.

7. Sports has a much stronger feedback loop-- the call-in shows (where they appear regularly), online forums and letters to the editor-- than politics. The sort of abuse that makes Deborah Howell or Adam Nagourney whine would be considered kid gloves in the sports world.

8. Sports editors and executives are vastly less tolerant of incompetence. In addition to Limbaugh, Dennis Miller and Joe Theismann lasted one season each on Monday Night Football.

Katie Couric has been as much of a disaster at CBS and nobody is talking about ditching her.

And, yes, I know about Joe Morgan. He isn't worse than Glenn Beck.

9. While sportswriters indulges in hero-worship and myth making, they do hammer people who commit gross ethical or moral violations. Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi and Mark McGwire are widely viewed as liars and cheats. Mike Vick ran a dogfighting ring and almost everyone wants him run out of the NFL. Adam "Pacman" Jones already is out and the attitude was "good riddance."

Are there any comparable examples in politics? Alberto Gonzalez lying to congress, Rove and Gonzalez firing attorneys, the violations of the Hatch Act, use of RNC e-mail to avoid government scrutiny? Jack Abramoff?

When the Mark Foley scandal broke, the Republic Party insisted that it had been leaked for political purposes. And the political press discussed whether the story should be discounted in light of that.

When Bonds's defenders pointed out that the book documenting his steroid use was based on illegally-leaked grand jury testimony, the response was "So what-- what's important is that it's true."

Or, to reduce my case to five words: "Chris Matthews and flight suit."

If you forced the sports desk and the political desk at most newspapers to trade jobs, you'd be stunned at the impact. When Condoleeza Rice or Hillary Clinton said "we shouldn't negotiate with people we consider enemies", the sportswriters-- who go through this every year with draft picks, would ask how you intend to get a deal with someone you won't talk to.

Meanwhile, we'd be seeing stories saying "David Wells is 44, he's about 70 pounds overweight and he's 5-8 with a 5.54 ERA, but he sounds so damned manly that I think someone should sign him" or "How can Jim Leyland ask players to shave their facial hair when he has a moustache? Doesn't this prove he can't manage?"

Posted by: Woody Goode on August 15, 2007 at 5:07 AM | PERMALINK

How do we get a better press corps?

Invent an Internet and start blogging.

Posted by: Bob M on August 15, 2007 at 7:36 AM | PERMALINK

LOL -- Woody is right.

Here is another example: the AUDIENCE is more knowledgeable, and is less easy to fool, for sports than for politics.

Somebody may be a Nationals fan, but that makes them MORE, not less likely, to appreciate how the owners are trying to build a team from the bottom up. They may miss Soriano -- but they realize there is a strategy there. If sportswriters were constantly trying to come up with wedge issues or polarizing phrasing to explain why Soriano (or Livan Hernandez) were traded, that wouldn't create blue and red fans, it would simply alienate the fans from the writers.

Or consider the role of ex-jocks in sports. There really is a rough meritocracy. For every Joe Morgan, you get a Tim McCarver or a John Kruk. McCarver is the only commentator I've ever heard while watching a game, who will tell you what's going to happen BEFORE the pitch -- that a curve on 1-1 is likely to make the hitter's swing slower on the next pitch, so high heat will give 'em the popup they want.

But that kind of Has-Been expertise cannot have the same degree of independence in political journalism, and it is fatally distracting to actual reporting. McCarver isn't watching the same team, even when he is calling a Cardinals' game, the way a Stephanopolous or a Russert has to demonstrate independence from Democrats; and of course Kristol, et al, famously seek only to exploit "objectivity" as a weakness for Democrats: conservative "journalists" consciously see themselves as part of a movement, and work their approach to help the team. (Read anything by Novak, e.g., 'Rove's resignation is the result of vicious and unrelenting Democratic attacks...' instead of, say, a series of spectacular failures.)

But the real difference -- and the real lesson -- is that journalists are rarely confident, or even much interested, in the actual substance of a political story, at least "objective" ones aren't. Where a McCarver might say -- well, with the count 2-0 and a runner on first, this guy isn't a power hitter so he may be sitting on a fastball he can drive to left, so watch for something low and inside: if that's what he guesses, there's a big gap with the first baseman holding him on....

Serious baseball fans would be thinking along those lines already, and even a casual fan can follow it: there's no need to talk down to us. But in politics, there is almost no OTHER way to talk about stuff than condescending pander.

A political journalist will NEVER say: 'well, with 12 million illegal residents and 8 million of them working, the can't take it any more anger of a large percentage of the electorate is a legitimate political force that has proven effective in stopping Senate legislation drafted in back rooms by lobbyists. Whatever else we know, it's clear that the Senate's 'comprehensive' approach failed. Now attention turns to the House, where a new subcommittee chair and a new Speaker both happen to be women from California...'

Strictly speaking, there isn't any opinion in that graf, and it is all accurate. But it has a point of view that is grounded in the substance on which the politics of the issue is founded, just the way McCarver talks about the basic dynamics of the pitch count, the hitter's characteristics, where the fielders are placed, and so on.

In political journalism, you get instead a lot of Left/Right or bipartisan framing -- much more Joe Morgan than Tim McCarver: you see LESS of what's happening on the field, for all the bogus description.

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 15, 2007 at 8:09 AM | PERMALINK

Don't take this the wrong way, Kevin, but you are absolutely wrong on the substance. Think of Krugman*: because he has expertise, he actually has value independent of the job given him. Because he has value, he can walk away from that job. Because he can walk away, he can speak the truth. Journalists in general MUST cave in to their publishers' demands, because they are stuck. Without expertise, there is no independence.

I would also say that expertise can be developed: great investigative reporters develop their expertise as an issue presents. People like that are also employable outside the gossip-rag business. But if all you know how to do is cultivate sources and have a sense of the conventional wisdom, you are useless in journalism and are destined to be a tool. As is true in any other profession.

Posted by: calling all toasters on August 15, 2007 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

Y'all left out the really weird part about Joe Morgan & Bill James : James thinks Morgan was about the best percentage player ever. As a player, he took all the walks he could get, stole bases at appropriate times & with high success, hit for power, & played smart defense.

Posted by: Downpuppy on August 15, 2007 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

Good sports writers tell the fans why certain things happen and why those things were good or bad.

Political writers only cover who's ahead and who's behind, seldom giving us any insight about why these things are happening or why the events are good or bad.

Sports writers seldom do steno duty; the fans and their editors would have their heads. Political writers, well, we've seen they've become. As for their editors.....

Sports fans are knowledgeable because sports writers actually write to inform us. Political writers often seem intent on keeping readers in the dark.

Posted by: zak822 on August 15, 2007 at 9:17 AM | PERMALINK

How many political writers have a comprehensive understanding of the foundations of policy debates? Do they understand economics? Do they understand business? Do they understand taxation? Do they understand social issues?

A journalist who is a friend once asked me about an LTE that I wrote criticizing farm policy. He grew up on a farm and hated it, but still feels empathy with small farmers. Still, he couldn't understand why I didn't like the policy of the day, policies that helped keep too many farming and made it harder for those who were competent to continue to make a living at it. He could not understand how misguided farm policy was undermining farming, particularly medium-size family farms, while it was still making sure that farmers got money.

By the way, did any reporters write an article on the business pages of any newspaper calling the Wall Street Journal on its false data and bogus chart related to its editorial last month trying to justify lower corporate taxes? Newspapers have to fact check each other, and the only way that can happen is if the reporters understand what the facts are.

Posted by: freelunch on August 15, 2007 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

Another thing, too: political writers (by which I mean anybody who writes about government -- funny that there is no such category as 'government writer') have a really weird idea of what is "opinion".

Virtually any sports writer on any sport can do a 100 well-informed words on any side of the "who's the greatest' argument. Babe Ruth? Revolutionized the game, hit nearly ten times the home runs as any predecessor, had hit twice as many as his closest rival when he retired AND was a great pitcher first: BUT he never played night games, baseball was whites only and few Latinos, etc. Michael Jordan? Won 7, huge fan fave, but in a bigger league with more diluted talent than Russell with the Celtics and had the refs on his side. Ali? Very important, lost his best years to his exile, lost to Frazier in The Fight and stayed too long after beating Foreman; hard to compare with Marciano or Louis, but... and so on.

You can clearly see in those little bytes which are facts and which is opinion, AND where the opinions rest on facts -- somebody can argue that Josh Gibson had more power than Ruth (cue the shrug: how could you know?), but NOT that Gibson was also a better pitcher.

Name me a political writer who has ever done (much less COULD) do a similar take comparing Reagan with Clinton, or the basic arguments about taxes, the way ANY sports fan can do Ruth vs. Aaron vs. Bonds.

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 15, 2007 at 10:56 AM | PERMALINK

It's the ideology stupid.
A majority of America's press have been fed a lifetime of conservative political 'facts'. It colors their world and unfortunately ours as well.

Posted by: Northern Observer on August 15, 2007 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

Credulity seems to be the biggest problem in reporting today. One does not become incredulous simply by giving two points of view. Analysis and actual reporting require an ability to find and disseminate the incredible stupidity in political circles to the chagrin of the stupid and the vain. And to make money with that skill.

Thus, the problem lies in the fact that making folks look stupid in politics does not seem to be very profitable at the moment. And we're all paying for it.

Posted by: parrot on August 15, 2007 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

sports writer call bullshit on bullshit. doesn't matter if it's the star of the team or the coach or whatever. if you screw up, they point it out.

Posted by: Red Headed Stepchild on August 15, 2007 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

There is no need for more expertise *in politics*, but journalism would benefit from more expertise. Part of the reason too many journalists cover all issues as purely politics and do not look at substance is that politics is what they know. If I were looking for new reporters I would want someone who was a good researcher as well as a good writer. Understanding politics is unnecessary, almost undesireable, as it leads them to say, of course, what politician X is saying makes sense because it appeals to demographic Y, rather than saying, would that really work?

Posted by: Eric L on August 15, 2007 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

Red Headed Stepchild nails it. I think that is what made Hunter Thompson so good at transitioning from sports writing to politics.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on August 15, 2007 at 11:30 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, but it's HOW you screw up that makes the difference.

If Joe Torre has Roger Clemens start the seventh game of the next World Series and he gets shelled (insha'allah), the papers and sports channels will be full of how betting on Roger wasn't crazy. But if he left him in an inning too long, say AFTER he had had walked the bases loaded in a prior inning, then everybody would be all over Torre for not seeing the obvious, for letting his heart rule his head, for a major blunder: nobody would pull punches, least of all Yankee fans.

That's not typical of political writing. The fans of conservative politics defend Bush, even to the point of defending Gonzalez, etc., in a way no Yankee fan would defend Joe Torre if he screwed up. Writers trying to reach that audience follow their cue.

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 16, 2007 at 7:27 AM | PERMALINK

George W. Bush probably gets less heat from the media as president of the United States than he would had he remained owner of the Texas Rangers ("Why is the farm system lagging?", "Where's the pitching?", "Why was the mew ballpark designed with short power alleys?", etc.)

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