Presidential campaigns, sports writing, and the fine art of pretending
The jobs of political reporters and sports writers are almost identical: Determine who is ahead and who is behind; get inside the heads of the participants; decode the relevant strategies and tactics; and find a way to convert reader interest into sustainable enthusiasm. Then, maintain reader enthusiasm for the months and months of caucuses or preseason games, primaries or regular season games, conventions or playoffs, and the general election or Super Bowl (or World Series).
So elemental is this eternal connection between sports and politics that even underdog presidential candidate Rick Perry gets it.
“The only scoreboard that matters is tomorrow, and it’s the scoreboard when the caucuses meet and we win the big Iowa caucus tomorrow,” Perry told the cheering crowd at his final campaign rally yesterday, sounding like the coach of a broken-down wildcard NFL team.
It’s not that the Iowa caucus doesn’t matter to the long-term prospects of the Republican candidates. It does, but not that much. Last week, while trying to inflate the relevance of the Iowa caucus, ABC News had to admit how inessential the contest is. “The Iowa caucus has had about a 50 percent ‘success’ rate when it comes to predicting the nominee” from either party, the site reported. The reason we hear so much about the caucus is because it matters a lot to the press corps, which should—but doesn’t—downplay the event into something less meaningful than a coin toss.
Who to blame for Iowa? I hold Jules Witcover responsible because he touted in his 1977 book “Marathon: the Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976″ the vital role the caucus played in Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1976: He finished second to an uncommitted slate but used that showing to declare “victory” in Iowa. Some pundits say Iowa helped make him front-runner and win in New Hampshire. Even if it’s true that Iowa was the secret to Carter’s eventual success, it’s hardly fair that we should be paying for his good luck 36 years later.
Charles P. Pierce, who has covered both sports and campaign politics and is now a writer at large at Esquire, told me from Iowa today that sports writers have a greater liberty to tell the truth than do political reporters. A sports writer, for example, will encounter little resistance from his editor when he submits a story that says a young shortstop has no chance to make the big leagues. But few experienced political reporters are allowed to treat hopeless candidates like Michele Bachmann that way until the day the candidate is forced to drop out of the race.
“You have to pretend,” Pierce said.
If they weren’t encouraged to pretend, political reporters would tell you to take an Iowa breather and wait for more consequential contests—such as the New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida primaries. Even sports writers pretend sometimes, notably around the time of the Olympics. If they were completely on the level they’d instruct fans to take an extended bathroom break between games. But the commercial demands on both kinds of news fill what should be dead air with speculation, minutiae, human interest, gossip, and commentary. One would think that readers and viewers would resent all the ephemera masquerading as news, but they actually seem to appreciate it! How else to interpret the high ratings for the Republican debates this year or, on the sports side, the proliferation of pre-game and post-game shows, or whole networks owned by and devoted to the NFL and MLB?
“Sports TV has become the template for political reporting,” Pierce said, comparing the spectacle of Iowa coverage to NFL Countdown.
Professional codes deter the sports writers and political reporters from rooting for their home team or their “home” candidate. But both still have a vested interest in their guys winning. The football writer hopes to ride his team’s wave all the way to the press box at the Super Bowl, where a book contract or something even better might ensue. The political reporter, whether he’s a Chicago Tribune reporter covering the Obama campaign in 2008 or a Boston Globe reporter assigned to Mitt Romney this year, not-so-secretly hopes his paper’s “home” candidate will win and he’ll get reassigned to the White House by his bosses or hired by the Washington Post or New York Times. On the cable dial, you can hear MSNBC hosts root for the Democrats just as clearly as you can hear Fox News hosts do the same for Republicans.
But journalists can be realists. “Do you want to be covering Michele Bachmann right now, or do you want to be with Romney and Paul?” said Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, answering his own question. (Nobody wanted to cover the Indianapolis Colts this year, either.) Farhi, who has reported on business, sports, politics, and the media, says business coverage also obsesses on winners and numbers. “Maybe all journalism is about success and failure, and we see it more clearly in sports,” he said.
If something can be counted, it can be listed. If it can be listed, you can be sure it has been. Compare, for example, the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s five things to watch in last year’s Super Bowl with Politico’s five things to watch in Iowa from today. Guess which list instructs its readers to watch for “game changers” and “center of attention,” which insists that “not all ground games are equal,” or which talks about what will happen “if the weather is bad”?
The campaign has to start somewhere and, for reasons too arbitrary to explore here, it starts in Iowa. We can thank the Iowa caucus for breaking in the candidates, for seasoning inexperienced reporters, and for conditioning press veterans for the coming long haul. But the dirty little secret is that even though 1,500 members of the press corps are there right now covering the story, Iowa hardly matters. If you blinked, you didn’t really miss it.
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PHOTO: Supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) attend a campaign stop in Cedar Falls, Iowa, January 2, 2012. The Iowa Caucus will be held on January 3. REUTERS/Jim Young