Film screenwriter William Goldman once wrote of Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” What is often true of movie-makers — due largely to the all-too human inability to predict what the public will like — is all the more accurate of mainstream media pundits. For all their years of experience and their supposed grasp of the fine points of politics, it seems most of them were caught flat-footed, just like the White House, when it came to the unraveling of ObamaCare.
David Broder, the dean of Washington insider-ism, concedes:
I badly misjudged the broad public reaction to the angry August congressional town meetings. Instead of provoking a pro-Obama backlash, as I had expected, the town halls, amplified on sometimes hostile cable channels and talk radio, spread disquiet about what the president has in mind. And Obama’s patient, didactic responses have not quieted the reaction, let alone built fresh support for a vitally needed overhaul of our expensive, dysfunctional health system.
Who knew all those people would be upset with a big government power grab? You’d have had to be a mind reader to see that ordinary citizens, who never show up for their congressmen’s in-district chats, would show up in throngs, right? Well, if you ignored the tea party movement, you might have missed the groundswell of popular opinion and the rising activism among libertarians and conservatives. But then, come to think of it, the mainstream media did ignore or ridicule the tea parties. The hundreds of thousands who showed up on April 15 and the tens of thousands who showed up since then were the nucleus of a populist, small-government movement. It’s been out there for months now, but you wouldn’t have heard about it from mainstream media — or taken it seriously if that was your only source of news.
So now liberal pundits like Charles Blow must break it to their readers that “it stands to reason that many people probably don’t trust Washington on health care reform because, right now at least, they just don’t trust Washington.” You see, dear New York Times readers, while the Gray Lady has been cheerleading for Obama, many of your fellow citizens in flyover country have become angry and scared that we are spending and borrowing too much and soon will be taxed to make up for the spending binge.
What’s worse, the mainstream media’s glaring fumble comes in its area of supposed specialized knowledge: horse race politics. In fact, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander confesses that they’ve spent way too much time doing process stories during the health care debate. He writes:
In my examination of roughly 80 A-section stories on health-care reform since July 1, all but about a dozen focused on political maneuvering or protests. The Pew Foundation’s Project for Excellence in Journalism had a similar finding. Its recent month-long review of Post front pages found 72 percent of health-care stories were about politics, process, or protests.
In sum: in their area of presumed expertise and where their journalistic efforts have been most focused, mainstream news reporting and punditry were the most inept and most inaccurate. So now the mainstream media is in catch-up mode. Having quietly fretted as Obama’s poll numbers drifted lower and misrepresented the extent of independent voters’ support, they now must explain that the town hall crowds weren’t simply crackpots or dupes of the insurance industry. Those people are actually quite representative of the electorate — especially the electorate willing to turn out to vote in the 2010 congressional elections. And while they swooned at Obama press conferences, the media must now admit that Obama has been colossally ineffective at persuading the public.
The “catch-up” phenomenon is nothing new. We saw it with the Iraq war surge. For months and months the military, a few stalwart senators like John McCain and Joe Lieberman, conservative media outlets, and bipartisan military experts reported back that the surge was making a difference. The New York Times, the weekly not-much-news magazines, and the network broadcasts kept mum. But then shortly before then-candidate Obama was to visit Iraq, the mainstream media rushed to close the gap between the reality on the ground and their own gloom-and-doom reporting. It was catch-up time. The surge hadn’t suddenly worked; its success just couldn’t be ignored any longer.
It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that the mainstream media and their stable of Beltway pundits missed the boat on the public’s reaction to Obama’s health care offensive. Chatting mostly among themselves, susceptible to (if not anxious to pass on) Democratic talking points, and devoid of many (any?) conservative colleagues willing to challenge their assumptions, they are easily blindsided when reality intervenes.
So when looking for the next major news development or the next stumbling block for Obama, think about what’s not on the front pages of the major newspapers or on the cable or network evening news. Chances are, whatever the mainstream media is ignoring is the next really big story.