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?
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?