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What the media could learn from the NFL

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In football, you have one set of players that runs offense and another that runs defense. That makes sense: Your linebacker should be learning how to be an excellent linebacker, not a mediocre running back. Specialization! Adam Smith! The pin factory! This is what made America great, and Europe terrible, or something.

Sadly, the political media isn't as well organized as your average football team. There are two big things that go on in this town: Politics and policy. It would make a lot of sense to have people who focus mainly on one or the other, and news outlets do. But because lots of people read about politics and very few people read about policy, the political reporters end up prospering, and they're left with the megaphones when the election ends and policy begins. David Gregory, for instance, was a campaign reporter who now anchors a show that is, in theory, substantially about policy. And that's not an accident: He was hired because of what a good political reporter he was, as that skill is considered pretty much identical to policy reporting.

The idea that knowledge of politics is the same, or even particularly related, to knowledge of policy is really poisonous, and utterly pervasive. Take Peggy Noonan's column arguing that "the public in 2009 would have been happy to see a simple bill that mandated insurance companies offer coverage without respect to previous medical conditions" but, instead, the White House got "greedy for glory." You don't need to know a lot about health-care policy to know why the administration didn't do this, and the answer isn't "glory."

Crudely speaking, insurance premiums are the average of the expected risk of that particular pool of customers, plus a bit for profit, administration and so forth. If insurers don't discriminate against sick people and there's no mandate or subsidies bringing healthier people into the pool, then the average premium price begins to reflect the price of the average sick person. That's intuitive enough: Sick people need insurance more, so they sign up for it in greater numbers. That means costs rise to reflect the average of sick people rather than sick and healthy people, and those high costs drive more healthy people out of the pool, and that makes coverage unaffordable for everyone. The name for this is an "insurance death spiral."

But assume, for a moment, that there was no such thing as an insurance death spiral. Reread under that light, Noonan's take is, if anything, worse. She doesn't even entertain the idea that the administration sought to cover 30+ million Americans because doing so is important. Instead, it was all about political, uh, "glory." When all you know is politics, everything looks like politics. And when the media is dominated by that perspective, the public comes to believe it, and from there, it's only a short jump to the corrosive cynicism that's eating away at our civic culture.

And I don't even really mean to pick on Noonan. I think she's a pretty good political columnist, actually. And she's certainly not alone. Check out Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a GOP 2012 hopeful, writing that balancing the budget will require Congress to "reduce discretionary spending in real terms, with exceptions for key programs such as military, veterans, and public safety." As Stan Collender points out, discretionary spending with these exceptions is about $400 billion a year. The government spent about $4 trillion in 2009. You could cut 20 percent from Pawlenty's category and have done fairly little for the short-term budget deficit and virtually nothing for the long-term budget deficit, which is driven by the growth rate in health-care costs.

If political editors knew policy a bit better, they might have challenged Pawlenty on that point. But they don't. And why should they? They've probably heard the same stuff from their writers for years now. And the American people have been hearing this stuff from everybody, so it all sounds like truth to them.

Photo credit: By Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  January 11, 2010; 3:31 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Next: The problems with budget reconciliation

Comments

I've always known the policy v.s. politics dynamic in DC, but you've described it very nicely. I'm going to use this!

Posted by: amarcionek | January 11, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

This is an excellent explanation of why I'm not a Politico, HuffPo, or cable TV watcher anymore, when in 2008 I was hardwired into all of these all day long.

And about David Gregory, my god who is a bigger flop Conan or this guy?

Posted by: zeppelin003 | January 11, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for taking on Noonan over her column. When I read it yesterday, I too found it ridiculous. Then again, that is my typical reaction to what I see in the WSJ, so I usually just avoid it.

Posted by: ctnickel | January 11, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Picking on Peggy for her policy blunder is right & necessary. But she is not alone. Late William Saffaire was same, George Will at WaPo is same and so on.

Having said that, independent of policy it needs to be pointed out when the politics of the bill is wrong. HCR taking time of fixing Economy is valid political criticism. Obama WH siding with Bankers is a valid criticism. Getting Politics right is the necessary condition, policy details - those can follow. It is for a reason we are not ruled by Policy nerds but Politicians who have to win elections. With primacy of Politics, it becomes natural that those reporters dominate. What is minimal expectation that these reporters get their policy details right.

Posted by: umesh409 | January 11, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Great piece. How can the Post publish both this sort of cogent analysis, and the stuff that ploops out of Fred Hiatt's Carnival of Driveling Ignorance?

Truly puzzling.

Posted by: antontuffnell | January 11, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

IMO social media via broadband allows a spreading out of what was focused in main stream media. The polarization of opinion into 2 waring camps when the needs of society are going un-met is causing ad hoc solutions in spite of the politicos. This blog and ones like it are part of this change. Mainstream is less and less pertinant as the sum of irrelevance and ineffectiveness precipitates "other" answers to our needs. Life finds a way. The alternative is extinction and we have come too far as a species to allow poor "official" leadership to kill us.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | January 11, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the post Ezra, it nails the issue I have with a brother-in-law who constantly complains that 'all politicians are crooks', but can't articulate why he doesn't like a particular national policy.

With Peggy Noonan, it also matters when one of those 'political' reporters spent a significant amount of their career directly working for prior administrations, and continued doing work for the party from those same administrations. Ms. Noonan worked for 12 years under Reagan and Bush Sr., then continued doing consulting work for the GOP. Does this tarnish their writing on either politics or policy? My belief is yes, especially when it's the kind of ad hominim attacks coming from Ms. Noonan against the Democrat du jour.

Posted by: Jaycal | January 11, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

EK: "She doesn't even entertain the idea that the administration sought to cover 30+ million Americans because doing so is important. Instead, it was all about political, uh, 'glory.'"

This is a ridiculous attempt by Ezra to rewrite history. The administration has made it clear from the beginning that it didn't care what was in the bill and what wasn't, as long as some bill, any bill, got passed. Ezra may want to pretend other wise, but the reality is that the administration has never fought for expanded coverage, or the public option, or any particular feature of any bill. It just wants to go into the next election with the ability to argue that it passed health-care reeform, without regard for what that reform actually looks like. That's entirely a matter of political, uh, glory.

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 11, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Luckily, now we have the interwebs and guys like EK and Matt Y and many other voices, some new and some not, to counteract the spin with real policy knowledge and a new audience hungry for it. This stuff was never so accessible! Amazing.

Posted by: LADemocrat | January 11, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Just look at old pictures of David Gregory before he juiced up on steroids. It's like he's not even the same person.

Posted by: dpurp | January 11, 2010 8:47 PM | Report abuse

Not to be a downer here, but I don't like this post. First, Ezra doesn't offer anything constructive for how the political media can improve itself. Second, I think it is unfair to pick on David Gregory. He is not hosting Meet The Press because of his political knowledge or background, but for his presentational skills. That is, his job is to ask good questions and look good doing it. Arguably, Chuck Todd, who was also competing for that job, has a better sense of political dynamics. So yes, Gregory had a background in political journalism, but that isn't why he was chosen.

Finally, I just really dislike Ezra's whole approach here, which at the outset treats politics and policy as if they are as separable as offense and defense in football. There are many ways to tear apart the analogy, but without belaboring the point, the simple fact that policy is made in a political context explains the difference. And how many times has Ezra made a post that acknowledges political realities? How many times have we had discussions of what policy options are politically palatable and aren't?

I could go on to add that even those media figures who are ostensibly focused more on politics, like Keith Olbermann, may not have even the expertise in politics that you would hope for.

What the media does when it comes to policy is they have reporters who discuss it. That is the right way to go about it. So whether it is Tom Ricks writing up about defense in the Washington Post (just to take an old example, I know he isn't there anymore) or NBC's defense correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, who earns expertise over years of reporting, they can go to people with knowledge on policy matters. What we need to do is separate the TV host - who gets a job in part by being capable of asking questions and seeming appealing on TV - and the overall execution of the program. Of course, the program execution is often flawed as well, with a slant towards more gossipy or political stories, but that's a whole another comment!

Posted by: gocowboys | January 11, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Truly excellent post. I'm with Anton -- this deserves a plot of print.

Posted by: jwb81 | January 11, 2010 11:22 PM | Report abuse

What is Ezra doing criticizing other reporters for only doing politics without policy. Ezra has become all about politics. Ezra puts politics and what gives Democrats an advantage over policy all of the time these days. He is not one to criticize others for his own transgressions.

Posted by: lancediverson | January 12, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

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