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Seven stories Politico fears

Annoyed by Politico's silly listicle of the "stories" Barack Obama fears, White House staffers leaked a little list of their own:

7 narratives politico is fighting in their efforts to get an interview with the President

1. They are more interested in readers than accuracy
2. Its okay to be wrong every once in a while, if your are the first to break the news
3. More interested in gossip than news
4. A spouter of the worst sort of insider conventional wisdom
5. Their analysis about obama has been wrong more than any one
6. Click ... period
7. More obsessed with personality than policy

Cute. And good for everyone involved: Politico gets traffic, and the prestige of being in a spat with the White House. And the White House gets credit for not being media-obsessed, even though they'll be back to leaking stuff to Politico tomorrow. If they ever stopped.

But this misses the mark a little bit. Politico isn't afraid of being known as the most sensationalistic, horse-race-oriented, controversy-focused news outlet. That's their business model, or at least the business model of the front page (the stuff inside Politico is a lot better, presumably because it's aimed at lobbyists and Hill staffers). What Politico -- and other campaign-obsessed outlets -- fear are the narratives that expose much of their work as simple distractions. What they fear, I think, is political science. Here's a different list:

1)Campaigns don't really matter. Elections are largely decided by the fundamentals of the economy. The graphs in this article would've done more to predict the 2008 election than reading Politico every day.

2) Presidential speeches don't matter much, either.

3) Nor does the executive's legislative strategy, come to think of it. Politics is much more interesting when it's told as the story of the executive, but in fact, the rules and composition of the Congress decide 80 percent of everything -- including the president's legislative priorities and strategy.

4) Polls are useful for measuring impressions but very bad for measuring beliefs.

5) The media is a political actor, not an observer.

6) Pretty much no one watches cable news.

7) What you emphasize is a lot more important than what you report. People don't read you closely.

The problem with political reporting is not, as some would have it, simple sensationalism. It's that the premises they're sensationalizing are often wrong. Campaigns don't matter as much as the media would have you believe. Presidents don't matter as much as the media would have you believe. This stuff isn't done in bad faith, but it's still bad.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 1, 2009; 2:24 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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It is almost as though you think there is something that matters other than the opinions of millionaire bobbleheads.

Posted by: AZProgressive | December 1, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

This is frustratingly similar to the situation in professional sports about a decade ago, where a large build up of incorrect "conventional wisdom" allowed large arbitrage-esque opportunities for creative and intelligent thinkers, such as Billy Beane (ironically, one of the people responsible for pushing the frontier in sports analytics is now running a political website). The frustrating part, of course, is that there's only two American political parties, rather than 30 or so major league teams (regardless of which sport), so the chance that one of them will figure out how to take advantage of the situation is much lower - as are the odds of a political Billy Beane moving up the ladder to a point where he can take advantage of it. And, of course, the stakes on the right team figuring out how to exploit the political "market failures" are much larger than who gets to the playoffs.

And this all assumes that the Karl Rove permanent campaign mode White House wasn't the Moneyballification of politics, and the bad guys haven't already figured it out while the good guys are stuck watching Evan Bayh fiddle while America burns.

Posted by: DJAnyReason | December 1, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

why do you think it's not done in bad faith? if your business model requires you to act in ways that are contrary to reality, then yes, you are acting in bad faith.

i personally hope that politico fails miserably and i have never given them a single eyeball (much less both!) and never will: i think their key players are the living embodiment of bad faith.

Posted by: howard16 | December 1, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

The WH reaction shows they consider the story damaging. It is damaging, yet they just drew even more attention to it. Not smart.

Posted by: bmull | December 1, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

A President's legislative strategy matters because he sets the agenda. While the mechanics of how Obama has handled the health care debate are mostly meaningless, the fact that health care is being legislated on can be credited to Obama. If Obama had not pushed health care, it wouldn't be on the table.

Posted by: mikehoffman82 | December 1, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

It's a little demeaning to the White House to be engaging in this sort of low-level sniping, isn't it?

Posted by: tomtildrum | December 1, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Good post.

Posted by: leoklein | December 1, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

While I applaud Ezra's post, I think he underestimates the importance of the President in establishing the legislative agenda, prioritizing that agenda, and in securing passage of items on that agenda. Yes the partisan composition of both Congressional bodies is a limiting, maybe even a controlling, factor with regard to the shape of that agenda, but the President has a unique institutional capacity to shape the public debate.

As another poster noted previously, the current health care legislation has passed the House and is nearing Senate passage because it is a Presidential legislative priority, though it is also a priority of the current Congressional leadership, particularly in the House, and of the Democratic Party more broadly.

Comprehensive, meaningful, divisive legislation of this sort can pass only when a President makes it a priority. If the President had chosen to focus on other issues, we would not be having the current health care debate, or at least the debate would not have reached its current place on the pathway to becoming law.

Posted by: OHIOCITIZEN | December 1, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

is this pi$$ing match really necessary? Didn't the WH learn from the Fox News pool reporter mess. There's nothing you can benefit from dragging yourself down in the mud. You're only giving them attention.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 1, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

This post totally explains why Al Gore became our 43rd President. Oh wait...

Posted by: slag | December 1, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

This and the last post Ezra were really great, but Leo Tolstoy beat you to it by about 150 years. War and Peace is probably the best book about politics and history ever written. Tolstoy is absolutely right. In the scheme of things individual actors don't matter much at all. We're all just along for the ride, and the people at the top, those with the most power, they have less control over the course of events than anyone else.

Posted by: nklein1553 | December 1, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

"Campaigns don't really matter. Elections are largely decided by the fundamentals of the economy."

Al Gore would beg to differ.

Not saying they're as decisive as Politico would have us believe, but let's not go too far the other way.

Good campaigns are able to swing the opinion of marginal voters in Presidential races, because most voters are paying attention (and bad campaigns swing those opinions away).

And in low-turnout races and especially in primaries, good campaign strategy is frequently decisive.

Posted by: theorajones1 | December 2, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

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