Lazy Bums

When you're allergic to covering the issues, head for the sports cliché. We're going into overtime.

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer was discussing Game 7 of the American League Championship Series last week, when all of a sudden he had an insight—sports is a lot like politics, and could get even more so if the Houston Astros ended up facing the Boston Red Sox.

"And you realize, of course," Blitzer told his guest, "if it's a team from Texas and a team from Massachusetts, there's another contest that is coming up on November 2 representing someone from Massachusetts versus someone from Texas. That could be an interesting little political spinoff as well."

Campaign coverage this year has looked more like reporting for a sports event than for an election to decide the fate of the free world. Every morning the papers lead with polls, while the networks parrot each candidate's latest bulletin-board fodder (Mary Cheney, flip-flopping, "bring it on," etc.). We can all thank God and power at the plate that the Astros are out of it. But in this election season, the frenetic sports clichés are still in.

"The horse race is more entertaining for us," says William Saletan, chief political correspondent for Slate. "We're sports-minded political reporters. It's not more entertaining for people who don't care about the contest and care about the issue. But we all want to feel like we're a part of some event. It's more exciting that way."

The use of sports expressions is so pervasive, it's gone meta. Monday morning's Miami Herald reported this about Florida's Senate race, between Democrat Betty Castor and Republican Mel Martinez: "They're neck and neck. Locked in a horse race. Headed for a photo finish. Pick your clichés—they all fit . . . "

Media pundits love to attack the two campaigns for allowing style to win out over substance. But the very outlets they work for often do little more than funnel that very style straight to the audience. "Reporters act like they're appalled by the mere thought of covering issues," says Sean Aday, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "If a candidate goes to Florida and talks about Social Security, the coverage isn't going to be about Social Security. It's going to be about whether the candidate can draw the senior-citizen vote."

There is also bias—not toward left or right, but toward news. Stories about polls may be self-generated, with big news orgs cranking out the numbers themselves, but at least they're new. The facts of President Bush's troop deployment aren't. Furthermore, says Saletan, a political reporter is a special animal almost pre-selected to guess whether Kerry will win as opposed to what a Kerry presidency might actually mean. "The people who cover campaigns are not normal. It's not normal to be more interested in politicians than people's daily lives," he says. "These are people who like competition. They like to see who's up or who's down.

"The flu vaccine doesn't show up, and a normal person is thinking about what if their family gets sick," Saletan adds. "A political reporter is thinking about what this does for Kerry in Iowa."

Media producers have to consider the practical implications. Broadcasters find it's easier to sell the presidential campaign along the lines of a sports event, as opposed to selling a detailed analysis of John Kerry's plan for college aid. "That's what reporters will tell you," says Aday. "They'll say it's more interesting and the writing is more interesting, but that's a cop-out. Clichés—sports metaphors, war metaphors—are the hallmarks of bad writing. Policy stories don't have to be uninteresting. If you learn how to write better, they won't be."

Aly Colón, leader of an ethics group at the Poynter Institute, says he'd like to see stories that balance coverage of the competition with some analysis of what the campaigns represent. "Both approaches can be done, even if it seems that the horse-race approach is the norm," says Colón. "It doesn't mean that a story couldn't provide more coverage, in addition to that horse-racing aspect, to create a fuller picture of how the candidate might act in office."

Of course this would require more work, more research, and more sourcing. "We're lazy," says Saletan. "We're really, really lazy. First of all, we're cowards because we are afraid of being not objective. We're also just lazy. There may be two reporters in the country who understand tax policy. The rest of us are talking to our friends and reading each other in the paper."

 
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