Why do American journalists keep telling the future after continually getting it wrong?

The Signal

Why do American journalists keep telling the future after continually getting it wrong? James Fallows on the ideas and culture behind the predictive style in U.S. political media.
Maya Makovskaya
Maya Makovskaya
Nearly every prominent news analyst in America misunderstood what would happen in the country’s midterm elections last week, assuming predictions of a “red wave” that would give the Republican Party decisive control of Congress. You might think that such a collective error would result in a moment of collective introspection. But the U.S. political media hasn’t really missed a step, with new predictions about what the recent results mean for America’s 2024 elections—extending to who will emerge as candidates for each of the political parties and, above all, who the next president will be. The predictive style in American political coverage belongs to a genre of opinion journalism, one that’s come to overtake reporting, data analysis, and the art of the interview. As it has, there’s been a steep decline in the U.S. public’s trust in media, often expressed in terms of its “bias.” Yet the supply of opinion journalism continues to grow, on new-media platforms such as YouTube or Twitter and in established institutions like The New York Times or Fox News Channel. This widening disparity between what Americans are consuming in current-affairs journalism and what they trust seems paradoxical. What accounts for it?
James Fallows is a U.S. journalist, the author of 11 books, including Breaking the News—along now with a new publication of the same name—and most recently Our Towns, co-written with his wife and co-founder of Our Towns Civic Foundation, Deborah Fallows. To Fallows, the conversion of the U.S. press into a profession consumed with forecasting political outcomes is the culmination of a more than 60-year transformation—with a pronounced, negative effect on American democracy. There are forces of change in the new media environment, he says, but, so far, few signs that they will depose the predictive style anytime soon.
Eric Pfeiffer: You’ve long made the case that a gradual shift in the focus of U.S. political coverage from policy and substance to “horse-race” politics has eroded public trust in American media. How do you see this erosion happening over time?
James Fallows: I’d say the history of the way the press has shaped U.S. political awareness has a lot of continuity in it back through the decades. There are elements of the contemporary press that are ancestrally related to the kind of people who would go into public political journalism in the past. They like the game of politics.
The contemporary era of this style dates back to the early ‘60s. There was a phase shift then—brought on by the publication of a formative book by Theodore White, The Making of the President, about John Kennedy’s election in 1960. It was the first in the now-pervasive “inside account” genre of political journalism that’s intended to give the reader the sense of, Here’s what it’s like inside a presidential campaign.
There was never anything like that about Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower. It was a new way of talking about the machinery of politics—and it’s since developed into the most natural approach to journalism among American political reporters. There’ve been more and more outlets for this style—and there’s been more and more encouragement of it—over the years.
You can see the inclination, this intensification of focus on insider tales, in subtle ways—such as how a certain candidate was tired before a major event—that direct the audience away from the substance of campaigns or the policies they’re addressing.
Meanwhile, post-election coverage has morphed into pre-election coverage. With the refinement of polls at the center of political reporting and analysis, the moment one election is over, predictions and interpretations of the next one will have already begun.
Pfeiffer: How do you see these changes affecting the coverage of the U.S. midterms this year?
Fallows: I’d see them in the context of another inflection point in this contemporary history—the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama’s first, as he ran against John McCain. Then, aggregated polls—in particular, the kind associated with the statistician Nate Silver, with his needles and meters—started to become conventional in American political coverage. They heightened the idea that there was a special kind of polling insight that transcended normal reporting or normal common sense, which could give you fortune-teller powers about what was going to happen.
The last phase shift in the history of this predictive style in American journalism may now finally have come with it being so thoroughly debunked, 14 years later. After the 2022 elections, here’s the possibility of a broad recognition that all the forecasting based on polls was fundamentally wrong—and maybe, with that, some reckoning or accountability for the press.
Pfeiffer: Thinking about what would inhibit that last phase shift from happening, how do you understand the incentive structures that drive so much emphasis on prediction in U.S. political news?
Fallows: I wouldn’t say the incentive structures are especially market-driven. Not too many more people are going to subscribe to a newspaper because of an election prediction. The incentives have much more to do with the culture of American political reporters and editors.
Now, there’s an enormous number of fields I know nothing about. When Brazil comes into the news, I know nothing about Brazil. And I don’t know much about India. There are a billion other things like that. But I can say that, whatever might come up in the U.S. news on a given day, American political reporters always like to convert it into something they can forecast in terms of what it means for the next election.
Why? Number one, if you can bring the topic of the day into your field of expertise, such as what it means for the midterms, then you can always be the expert—you can be the authority, the person who’s broadcasting from D.C. or New York, speaking from a position and a place where people should listen to you. Number two, you’re not going to be held accountable if you’re wrong.
Elias Maurer
Elias Maurer
More from James Fallows at The Signal:
Political reporters enjoy the world of politics, but most people do not. To most people, politics is like sports but with less skillful players. Or it’s like a sitcom but the characters aren’t as sympathetic, and the plot is less emotionally moving. But the reporters themselves are fascinated by politics because it’s their world. And so there’d be this descending spiral in which the press is writing less and less about what engages the public, and more and more about what interests itself. The collateral damage of that approach is in the extent and quality of people’s awareness about the world they live in.”
American media’s institutions and political reporters have given no sign of reckoning with the things they’re doing that have both misrepresented the world and estranged them from many of their readers. Outside of politics, I think the media has continued to succeed and improve in many other areas of coverage—as in science, technology, and the climate—but not in public life. Something will have to happen to change this, whether it’s in the revolution now underway across new-media platforms or in the new partnerships media institutions are finding with nonprofits and citizen-funded journalism.”
Any meaningful reform in the American news industry will have to happen internally, in accordance with the virtues of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment—and its values of free speech and freedom of the press. For example, places like The New York Times could bring back the position of the public editor, someone who can help navigate mistakes the paper makes—such as in its reporting on weapons of mass destruction leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or its hyping of the obsession over Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. The next level down is reporters and editors personally saying, I was wrong. I made a mistake. I will become humble, and I will listen to people who can point out how we got things wrong. There are tiers of accountability.”

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