In covering politics, a little speculation ain’t a bad thing
With the great burden of the 2014 campaign season largely behind us, and commercial haulers queuing to feed the countless tons of now-obsolete political coverage to the nation’s landfills, it’s a good time to visit Tom Wicker’s timeless confession about the nature of political journalism.
Wicker, who died three years ago, worked as a reporter, a Washington bureau chief, and a liberal columnist for the New York Times. In his 1978 book, On Press, he described political journalism as a wobbly construct, stating that “in writing about politics, the possibilities matter as much as the supposedly known facts, which often are not facts at all.”
Wicker wasn’t complaining about political journalism, criticizing it, or disparaging the reporting of facts. Facts are useful in political journalism, but only as a starting point, because they tend to contradict one another. The job of a political journalist is to expertly weed his patch of facts to produce a tenable reportorial conclusion. Wicker explains how this technique worked during the1972 Democratic presidential campaign. One set of observable “facts” gave Senator Edmund Muskie front-runner status in the contest. Muskie had a talented staff, enjoyed a high standing in the polls, and possessed a calming, media-honed manner.
Senator George McGovern, who would eventually win the nomination, didn’t “stand a chance,” one top but unnamed political journalist told Wicker in 1971. That reporter was ignoring another set of “facts,” which Wicker calls evident to “anyone willing to see them.” Among other things, McGovern was expertly exploiting new delegate-selection rules (that he helped formulate) that blunted the traditional power of the political bosses and united the party’s left wing. An appreciation of these facts governed Wicker’s writing for the campaign cycle and made him look like a prophet.
“I believed his nomination was possible and opened my mind to that possibility before it became an obvious probability,” Wicker writes. Later in his book, he writes:
Not that facts are unimportant, or may be ignored, or tampered with, any more in political reporting than in other forms of journalism. But in political journalism, what can be assumed from facts, sometimes what can be plausibly suggested despite the facts, is often more important than the facts themselves—which may not really be facts anyway, in the accepted sense of the word. As an obvious example, it may be a “fact” that a Democratic candidate for governor of Illinois has carried Chicago; but for someone writing the story against a deadline, it’s infinitely more important to know enough to speculate that the Democrat carried Chicago by so small a margin that he could not possibly offset the predictable Republican vote downstate and win the election.
Like most gamblers, Wicker remembers his winning wagers better than he does his bad bets. He does, however, sheepishly recount his early belief that populist Fred Harris would inherit the McGovern wing and win the 1976 nomination that eventually went to Jimmy Carter. But the Wicker Principle is less about who has the best record in print of wins-and-losses and more about how political reporters play the game. This year in Texas, the press corps over-invested heavily in the possibility that Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis would generate blue momentum in that very red state. Whether they were wishing it or had spied real evidence I leave behind as a discussion point. But without a doubt, reporters had grown weary of writing about Texas because it was so dominated by Republicans.
As late as mid-July, the routinely astute Dan Balz of the Washington Post remained open to the big blue possibility. “The most important part of the campaign is yet to come, when the two candidates begin their advertising and engage in debates,” he concluded. Alas, Davis currently trails the Republican opponent 38 percent to 54 percent in one recent poll, with no sign of an incoming tide turning the state blue.
I single out Balz not because he is the worst political reporter but one of the best, and to illustrate Wicker’s observation that political reporters tend to build their stories on a foundation of informed speculation. What else can we expect them to do? Like sports columnists who prognosticate about winners and losers at the beginning of the season, political reporters draw on today’s facts and the string they’ve gathered in the past to glimpse the future and report back. Sometimes the gimmick works, as it did for Wicker in 1972. Sometimes it fails, as it did in 2008, when a Hillary Clinton nomination seemed inevitable, but providence awarded the nod to Barack Obama. As we inch toward 2016, the press corps is divining another Clinton cinch.
As the presidential campaign replaces the mid-terms in your daily news feed, keep in mind how much conjecture, guesswork, and hearsay informs what political reporters file, and remember that this is a necessary thing, not a bad thing! Political reporting concerns itself mostly with what’s going to happen. If you’re interested in what happened, please seek a historian.
Having given Wicker the first and the middle words on this topic, it’s only right that I give him the final ones. In 1962, the young Wicker asked Washington Post political reporter Edward T. Folliard for advice on a political assignment he was working on. “Young man,” Folliard said, “if you’re going to be a political writer, there’s one thing you’d better remember. Never let the facts get in your way.”
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PHOTO: President Obama waves at a campaign event for the Rep. Mike Michaud, running for Governor of Maine. REUTERS/Larry Downing