Parity panic in the political press corps
The political press corps, like their sportswriter brethren, prefers to cover contests where the winner is announced before the game is played. Until somebody anoints the overdog, no underdog can be proclaimed, profiled, and scrutinized to give the competition its needed dramatic tension. And when the candidates—or teams—are so piddling that a pre-winner can’t be identified, political correspondents and sportswriters panic.
Sportswriters actually have it worse, and National Football League writers worst of all, because the NFL deliberately pushes its 32 teams toward “parity” with spending caps, free agency, revenue sharing, shared TV rights, the college draft–which gives last year’s worst teams the best picks–and the so-called “balanced schedule,” which rewards last year’s bad teams with softer match-ups this year. The end product of NFL parity is the Jacksonville Jaguars, for whom .500 is a winning percentage.
The end product of Republican Party parity is the gang of gibbering right-wingers, token libertarians, and one or two centrists currently fumbling their way through the party’s presidential nomination process.
Other parallels abound. The tracking polls are the power rankings. The campaign managers are the general managers. The straw polls are the meaningless preseason games. The primaries are the regular season. The convention is the playoffs and the November election is the Super Bowl.
A political–or football–season shaped by parity stimulates the journalists doing the reporting to embrace the long-shots, especially long-shots who have recently put some points on the board. This explains the recent coverage of Herman Cain, who “upset,” as the Reuters headline puts it, Rick Perry in the Florida Republican straw poll late last month. As preseason games go, the Florida straw poll barely qualifies as an inter-squad scrimmage. Only 2,657 voters were cast in the non-binding contest. The results from the Florida state Miss America pageant are more meaningful. Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, who are Cain and Perry’s partners in campaign mediocrity, indicated the superfluity of the Florida straw poll by not bothering to suit up for it.
Yet the political press insists on covering Cain because 1) it fears being accused of ignoring “winners”; 2) it has to write about somebody; and 3) it has already filled its covers and column inches with the other parity candidates—Sarah Palin (Alaska’s version of the Jacksonville Jaguars), Romney, Perry, Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Jon Huntsman.
One clue that the press has lost interest in the presidential field is that they’ve surrendered part of the news cycle to gotchas—I’m thinking specifically of Rick Perry’s family’s “Niggerhead” hunting camp and his defense of Confederate “symbols” in Austin. This is like sporting press’ pieces on player DWIs, disciplinary hearings, injury reports, post-game press conferences, and the perennials about “team chemistry.” A perfect example is the coverage of Hank Williams Jr.’s comments this week in which he (sort of) compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler. All worthy bulletins, of course, but really just placeholders for meaningful action.
Every presidential campaign produces a daily avalanche of mini-news, so I’m not arguing against their inclusion in my news feed. Nor, as one blessed with insomnia, am I against the never-ending news cycle. If not for the Web and cable news, I would have little alternative but to go back to bed at 3 a.m.! But news gluttons must learn for themselves which campaign news is real news and which campaign news is parity puffery.
In today’s campaign news, if you want to call it that, we learn that Perry, previously a giant, is now a pygmy, because he’s now tied for second place in the polls with Cain. Cain, previously a pygmy, is now a giant killer. The campaign news also informs us that Sarah Palin’s people appear to be making presidential filing deadline calls and that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is still not a candidate for president.
It’s easy to explain the press corps’ desperate enthusiasm for Christie, who incidentally looks like a parody of an NFL lineman. The press can cast him as a campaign messiah, who can garner enough support to give the race more clarity. In this regard, political writers have it all over sportswriters: They can defeat parity tedium by conjuring up new candidates, but sportswriters can’t go prospecting for non-NFL teams to join the schedule to stir things up when no team looks good enough to win the Super Bowl (as opposed to not losing it). When absolute parity strikes the NFL, the only escape for sports fans are fantasy leagues, where they have more control over the players than any journalist has over people in the real world.
Now that political reporters have temporarily finished exploiting Christie—and he them—they can now return to goading Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Palin, and other non-candidate candidates to run. When they finish, they can return to Christie, whose “Now is not my time” comment today didn’t nail the door shut on a campaign. It just made him the GOP’s Brett Favre. And we know how much the sporting press loved Brett.
Did I forget to mention Rick Santorum? Yes, deliberately. Cast your ballot for Jack Shafer with email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Fantasy league fans should try my Twitter feed. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)
PHOTO: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie takes questions during an announcement that he will not be seeking the 2012 Republican nomination for president, in Trenton, New Jersey October 4, 2011. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson