Accurate But Boring - Macleans.ca
 

Accurate But Boring


 

Christopher Beam at Slate has written a deservedly-praised piece called “What if political scientists covered the news?” In it, he imagines what news stories would be like if they were based on the premise that only big-picture, macro factors have much impact on elections. So instead of “how will the oil spill affect the midterm elections,” you’d get:

Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.

Like so much else in life, these two competing views of political results — as driven by the collective impact of small events, or the over-arching impact of a few big things — remind me of two schools of baseball analysis. On the one hand you’ve got your sportswriters analyzing a baseball season based on day-to-day issues: who’s injured, who’s in a slump, who’s got the momentum. And then on the other hand you have your sabermetricians who argue that slumps and streaks are basically random, and that the results of the season are basically a predictable outcome of how good a team is at a) Getting men on base and b) Keeping the other team from getting men on base.

In this analogy, maybe a close election is a bit like the baseball playoffs: most of the results are driven by big factors, but when it’s close (in an election) or when it comes down to a few games (in baseball), all the other little factors — the small shifts in public perception, the little mistakes — become significant, since any one of them actually has the power to make a difference.

Well, at least nobody’s proposing that all news shows make themselves more relevant and issue-oriented by using a list of pre-screened questions and answers, a la that Bob and Ray sketch. Not yet, anyway.


 
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Accurate But Boring

  1. One big difference: baseball's a game and ultimately a meaningless diversion, whereas politics affects not only our current society, but more importantly the legacy we leave our children, grandchildren, and beyond.

    • Not so sure Sean, baseball, ballet, museums, street performance, gay parades, literature are all part of the mosaic that makes up our culture. It is quite possible to argue that politics is just the noisy process of politicians clumsily following broad societal trends. (Would Canada really be that different today if Stanfield had a term as PM?) On the other hand, culture can be argued to be the mechanism through which society tests, establishes and communicates where it is going.

      • I agree with you to a point, but street performers didn't send us to war in Afghanistan. Ballet dancers didn't create the Charter, and so on.

  2. "Well, at least nobody's proposing that all news shows make themselves more relevant and issue-oriented by using a list of pre-screened questions and answers, a la that Bob and Ray sketch. Not yet, anyway."

    Hasn't this started already? Not to the level in the sketch but guests on shows do sign papers with the production crew to know what subjects can be tackled during the interview and what is off limit. If they do not accept the conditions, the guest will just walkaway and go do an interview somewhere else.

    The most surprising part is that politicians need air time to sell their message and make sure that the population knows who they are. The empty threat that if you do not agree to the list of topics allowed by the guest, he will walk out and tell all his friends to never give an interview to your network/newspaper is just that, an empty threat. The problem is that the entire news media is scared of losing coverage and thus losing ratings and advertisement money that keeps them alive. Maybe if all of them would decide not to accommodate their guests and ask the questions that they want to ask them without any limitation on which topic will be discussed, maybe our politicians would be held accountable by the fourth estate.

  3. revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office

    Talk about a euphemism. You mean illegal job offers?

  4. Alternatively, What if Mark Steyn covered the news?:

    Muslims and their babies are still all out to get you.

    • Unworthy.

  5. This was not entirely unperceptive. Rare, among media. There's more, you're halfway there, but since you were smart enough to get to here I'll let you go the rest of the way on your own. I will mention that as you may already know, in politics, as in art and everything, some can go broad/wide-focus, and some can go narrow/close-up, but surprisingly few can do both, or keep one in mind while engaged in the other, or better yet, do both at the same time, broad with footnotes and references, that tell their own fascinating smaller stories, or conversely, intensely concentrated on small point while relating it to broader whole. The Wire, eh? Rare. There is also the time element, which people forget about, and static and dynamic situations. So even when they have mastered "space" (narrow and broad) still have to master time (short-, medium- and long-term). Etc.. I was going to make a Chomsky-related point re. understanding of sport vs. politics among general public, but truth is, when you think about it, same problems among sports fans as well. Seems human. Have to check into neurology, psychology, biology/evolution. Hockey fans are getting better because of understandable salary cap (who understands basketball's?), but still have trouble reconciling the particular with the general. Perhaps public debate might be helped by the kind of budget debate game someone or other linked to a while back. As a social-democrat I'm all for it, as large majorities, when forced to choose between lower taxes-worse services or higher taxes-better services, always choose taxes and services, esp. when time element and future consequences explained. I don't know if this was the game, but it looks promising: http://marketplace.publicradio.org/features/budge
    Anyway, just wanted to let you know, some decent reflection, Mr. Weinman.