Thursday, January 03, 2008

Hyperbole pump sucking air

My opinion of this Sunday lede hed might have been a lot higher if somebody hadn't decided this particular cliche was ready to start again on four days' rest for the Thursday paper:

DES MOINES, Iowa --Now, at last, it's the voters' turn.

Starting tonight in Iowa, followed by a blur of state-by-state voting over the next month and culminating in a 22-state "Tsunami Tuesday" on Feb. 5, the American people begin picking presidential candidates for the two major political parties and charting a new course for the country.

When you can cover up the original lede, start at the second graf and miss absolutely nothing in the way of content or prose, that's pretty much diagnostic of an abysmal lede. (The second graf is about twice as long and twice as hyperbolic as it needs to be, but you have to admit it's an improvement over the first.) Which suggests, in turn, that either we've run out of meaningful stuff to say about this little gathering in Iowa or there never was much to say in the first place. I don't think we're going to have it fixed by tomorrow morning, but maybe by the time summer (with its conventions and all) gets here, we could sort of stick to saying things that have some actual resemblance to real life. On to the third graf for an example:

They do so after the longest, costliest election run-up in American history, the first since the 1920s with no heir apparent in either party.

Well, what's that supposed to mean? Is it literal -- as in, this isn't a monarchy, so we don't have heirs apparent, thanks? Or is "no heir apparent in either party" shorthand for something like "no current president or vice president on a major-party ticket," in which case it's simply wrong?* And either way, what does it have to do with anything?

Can matters get worse? Sure! Just turn to the frontpage summary (now, apparently, deleted from the Interwebs):

The most unpredictable presidential race in 80 years turns from campaigning to results tonight when Iowans gather for first-in-the-nation voting.

Bad case of McClatchy Fever here: If you can't think of something sensible to say, proclaim an event the biggest and baddest ever. Trouble is, sloppy thinking makes for sloppy variables, and sloppy variables make for bad results. How do we measure the "predictability" of a presidential race: By the size of the primary field 11 months out? Survey research a month before the general election? Diffusion of land-line telephones in the voting-age population?** Presence or absence of international conflict (if so, when)? Quarterly GDP trend lines (if so, starting when)?

Even if it was possible to say something by, oh, August about whether this race was more or less "unpredictable" than the last two, would you want to? In the least unpredictable presidential race since 1996 ...

And just so you don't think we have nothing to do around here but beat on breathless McClatchyism, here's another one that should have been sent back for rewrite:

The winners of the Feb. 5 Georgia presidential primaries could be decided Thursday in frigid Iowa.

Or, just as easily, the results of Thursday's first-in-the-nation presidential balloting could shake up the entire race a month before Super Tuesday, when Georgians and voters in 21 other states cast their votes.

If you can figure out a condition under which A could be true (unlikely, since the winner of the Georgia primaries is decided in "Georgia," but the writer seems to mean something like "lopsided victories in both sets of caucuses could create a presumptive winner in Georgia"), you get to the real problem. These outcomes are neither exclusive (A and B could both happen: two massive victories in Iowa shake up the whole race) nor exhaustive (A and B could both not happen: nothing about Georgia is decided, and the race isn't shaken up). In other words, we've managed to produce a then-again lede that's equally irrelevant either way you read it!

The problem, if we can go back to our hyperventilating friends at McClatchy one more time, is this:

By Wednesday, the campaign story line was very familiar to Iowans, who've been inundated since last January.

Exactly. The "story line" is familiar beyond tedium to everybody within bludgeon range of the traditional dead-pine-trees media. Whether spreading a "story line" is the highest and best use of the press in the democratic process is another issue altogether. And could we humbly suggest, on today's evidence, that it's time to shut up with proclamations of the next turn in the "story line"?

* Look it up: Stevenson-Sparkman vs. Ike-Tricky.
** And you can look this one up too.


Blogger Electric Dragon said...

"Look it up."

Ok then. Wikipedia sayeth: "In the New Hampshire primary Kefauver upset Truman, winning 19,800 votes to Truman's 15,927 and capturing all eight delegates."

However never take Wiki as more than a starting point. An article in the New Hampshire Union Leader about the 1952 primary: "At the outset, the President had wanted to ignore the Granite State primary completely. His name was entered in the preference poll without his consent. When asked about his political plans at a news conference the last day of January, he informed reporters that the primaries were just so much "eyewash" and he could have the nomination simply for the asking. [my emph.]

This gratuitous remark drew critical reaction all over the state [...] At the suggestion of party leaders, Truman reversed his position."

A contemporary source: Time reported that the Truman campaign's slogan in NH was "Be human, vote Truman."

So Truman may not have been the final nominee, but he was certainly on the ballot (whether he really wanted to be or not), and was certainly willing to serve. In 2008, the P cannot run, and the VP announced long ago that under no circumstances would he run.

6:54 PM, January 03, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Good digging. Mind if I add a few points?

Truman was on the NH ballot. There were others (eg, Ohio and Jersey) in which he wasn't because candidacy required the candidate's written consent, which as the NYT noted would bar not only Ike but Truman "until he is willing to announce his availability for another term." Whatever his intent, and whatever motivated him to un-withdraw his name in NH, Truman appears to have remained officially undecided on that point.

The Times also puts the "eyewash" comment in slightly different context in this from Feb. 2 1952: "... because he could wait to get the nomination _if he wanted it_ at the national convention in July."

The primaries and the selection process were different in those days (as, of course, were the Times and the Union-Leader). But I don't think that means there was an "heir apparent" in the race; that requires too much of a direct comparison where direct comparison doesn't seem appropriate.

10:47 PM, January 03, 2008  
Anonymous TootsNYC said...

The real problem with all those leads is that no one is wiling to write a simple, straightforward news lead.

But then, I suppose, part of the reason they won't write that sort of lead is that it will point out that there isn't any NEWS, at least not YET.

So maybe that's a huge chunk of the problem, that we keep trying to report as news stuff that isn't really new. "They're still campaigning."

11:36 AM, January 04, 2008  

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