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Col. Mustard’s been murdered in the library, and Richard Morin knows who did it. “Exit polling, at least as we know it, is all but dead,” the Washington Post’s director of polling wrote in Monday’s paper, “mortally wounded by a handful of irresponsible news organizations and self-aggrandizing ‘Net journalists who gleefully have reported the early results of exit polling even before the polls close.”
The man wielding the lead pipe, according to Morin, was Jack Shafer, the D.C.-based deputy editor of online magazine Slate. Ignoring commonly observed embargoes, Shafer published the Voters News Service’s midday exit poll results from the Feb. 22 Michigan primaries. Since then, he’s been reviled by Morin and others as a doorknob-licker, an enemy of the state, a Web punk, and—more to the point—Not One of Us.
The news organizations that funded the exit poll eventually got Shafer to close his piehole by threatening to stuff a torte in it, specifically a cause of action under the obscure “Hot News Doctrine.”
Morin and his ilk professed to be defending the damsel of democracy, while actually, they were straining to protect their own fat franchises. The numbers cartel—ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, and the Associated Press pay for the Voters News Service—is frightened that it may lose its monopoly on embargoed information—and with it, its declining toehold on the American consciousness.
It’s a classic new/old media conflict: Morin’s broadside represents a defense of territory, of his cohorts’ right to make the rules. Like other large, slow-moving beasts before him, he sees the nimble little animals coming over the hill in droves and decides that they will not prevail because they are not like him.
Since the rise of exit polls, the election Kabuki has gone off unchallenged. Every journalist in Washington knows by midafternon who is going to win what. Yet they jointly agree to smile and wear beige.
By 5 p.m. on Super Tuesday, I could guess—I couldn’t say with certainty, because Matt Drudge was the one doing the publishing this time around (he called them the “1:00 numbers” and VNS doesn’t kick out its first numbers until 2)—that the fork was all the way through Bradley, and on the way to McCain’s heart as well.
But when I checked the TV, it was still all a vast mystery to the blabbers, even though they knew a lot more than Drudge told me.
The rationale behind the official cluelessness is simple: If voters knew how the race was going to turn out, they wouldn’t hold up their end of the bargain by showing up at the polls anyway. But by that standard, Shafer is a mere misdemeanant next to the Post’s sententious David Broder. Last Sunday, Broder declared both races over—a full two days before the polls opened. The story was above the fold. Page right. On a Sunday. In the Post. The most precious piece of political real estate in the galaxy.
“Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have taken command of the ‘Super Tuesday’ lineup of 16 presidential primaries and caucuses and could win enough delegates virtually to shut down the nomination race in both parties, an analysis by The Washington Post shows,” Broder wrote.
Which is more corrosive to the fabric of democracy? Leaking early numbers as the primary day progresses—or declaring a vote pointless before it begins? Broder is a market-maker, a powerful weather vane of convention with estimable influence over his colleagues. You didn’t have to watch much TV or listen to a lot of radio the day before the primary to see his influence writ large. The coverage of McCain had an elegiac sheen, and the race was clearly over.
“I don’t think that journalism is about prediction. I think we make damn bad prophets,” Broder says. “What we wrote on Sunday was very carefully phrased to suggest that these two candidates had taken command of a lot of delegates. It was conclusive, but it was a reportorial statement and based on a lot of evidence.”
Shafer wrote what he found, too, and says he never claimed to be an electoral trustee, just a hack with a telephone and a few sources. “If I worried that something I wrote would either hurt democracy or help democracy, I would freeze up like someone with Parkinson’s disease,” he said on the morning of Super Tuesday. “I trust the League of Women Voters, The Nation magazine, David Broder, and Brian Lamb to tend the vineyard of democracy.
“Let’s remember that the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal are the organs that validate political campaigns. They issue credentials, and then withdraw them, on a schedule known only to them. I never said the campaign was over. That’s David Broder’s job,” continued Shafer.
Whether they will admit it or not, the Post and Broder are in the prediction business because the rest of the story is ineffable and boring. Writing the “Who Is Going to Win?” story is a lot more fun than writing the “Why It Won’t Matter” story.
A civics-centric point of view suggests that Broder’s sin—using the paper of political record to piss all over the vote on Super Tuesday—was manifestly bad for the country and the process. And it certainly had a lot more impact than posting midday numbers on a Web mag. “I’m not the one that decided most of the delegates would be up for grabs in a single day. The parties are the one that decided that,” Broder says. “And the people who are publishing exit-poll numbers have no excuse for what they are doing.”
Of course, there’s another big reason that prematurely released exit polling is viewed as more toxic than prematurely released punditry: It’s usually right. In spite of his authoritativeness, Broder does get it wrong occasionally. Writing on Jan. 30, just two days before McCain cleaned Bush’s clock in New Hampshire by 18 points, Broder intimated, “This week, daily tracking polls (not those nasty exit polls, mind you) suggest that Bush has begun to climb back to near parity with the help of his Iowa victory and a series of endorsements…”
However, Broder—and the hulking polling infrastructure at the Post—got it right on Super Tuesday. And Morin was one of the guys who helped Broder obitize McCain. But qualms about whether he’d subverted the process by endlessly tracking it apparently didn’t stop Morin from taking to the Op-Ed page on Monday, the prim maiden aunt in journalism’s front pew, attacking Shafer for his reckless disregard of democratic and journalistic tenets.
If journalists have a responsibility in the democratic process, it doesn’t begin and end with embargoing exit-poll numbers. Last Sunday, the New York Times took a more measured approach, choosing not to dance on Bill Bradley’s about-to-expire corpus and leaving doubts that McCain’s insurgency might not be over. Writing about Super Tuesday, the Times’ Richard Berke would only say: “Whoever wins two of those three contests would be well on his path to the nomination. Those three states have always been critical for candidates in a general election. Now, for the first time in decades, they are primary battlegrounds.” Part of the Times’ refusal to join Broder stemmed from its ferocious crush on McCain. Most journalists vote the story, and they would have been fools to slip prematurely from the meaty embrace of Big John.
Broder had no such fealty and—like any good, hard-working journalist—wanted to be the first coroner on the scene in the Republican contest.
If you take away the gauzy rhetoric about stewardship over the process, Broder’s colleague Morin sounded about as credible and thoughtful as the members of the Academy after the Wall Street Journal had the temerity to investigate who might end up being named Best It Girl in a supporting role: Angelina Jolie or Chloe Sevigny. Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis told the New York Post, “It’s not in our interest to cooperate, and we’re sure most of the members did not.”
Jamin Raskin, professor of law at American University and director of the Appleseed Project on Electoral Reform, sees humor amid the exit poll ruckus. “There is something deeply ironic about how scandalized the establishments are about the publication of exit polls when public opinion polls are published throughout the campaign,” he says. “If polling is news, it is news throughout. If [publishing polling numbers] is seen as a destructive attempt to manipulate and control public opinion, then that is true six months before the election as well as six hours into it.”
But it wasn’t just those with a stakehold on the status quo who went after Shafer. Writing in the Web mag Feed, Adam Lehner saw “Shafer’s information-will-out approach as emblematic of digital culture and the journalistic values it engenders; a kind of wonkier version of smearing germs on doorknobs.” I know Shafer. (He used to have my job.) Shafer’s no doorknob-licker. More of a doorknob-biter, actually.
Lehner flays Shafer’s syllogistic defenses as an inductive fallacy that heads straight off a cliff: “The argument that since some journalists know something, everyone should know it is like saying that since some people require the amputation of limbs, everyone should have limbs amputated.” Guess they started with Lehner’s head—journalism is one big game of telephone, and the person who hears something true and reports it does the craft and the public a service.
Surprisingly, a counterpoint to all the sniffing appeared 12 inches to the southwest of Morin’s unredeemed carping. On Monday’s editorial page, the Post’s institutional voice reminded that there was something unseemly in journalists working to limit the speech of other journalists: “The notion that a magazine, having used traditional news-gathering techniques to obtain facts, could be barred from publishing them is disturbing.”
But even though all political coverage seems to have boiled down to which horse will gallop across the line, Morin goes to great lengths to suggest that he and Shafer are not in the same business. “The Internet is this millennium’s version of the Wild, Wild West,” he wrote. It was actually the last millennium’s frontier, but either way, the cowboys will win this one, too.
Credentials for What? Post political reporter Mike Allen distinguished himself by covering the Bradley campaign’s warts and aspirations with rigor. But he won’t be filing any more stories from inside the Bradley campaign—they’ve yanked his credentials. On Sunday night, Bradley reportedly came to the back of the campaign plane for an off-the-record session and, after feigning a heart attack, broke character and delivered a dead-on version of the folksified Gore: “I whunna fite fer ya” et Al. Allen wasn’t on the plane and wasn’t in on the ground rules, and when he heard about this bit of high comedy, he plastered it up on the Post Web site. “Mike acted entirely appropriately. He learned about this incident from people who were there, was not bound by the ground rules, and put it up on the site basically for its humor value. The [campaign] is overreacting to the strong and aggressive reporting that he’s done,” says Post National Editor Jackson Diehl. Well, if it was all so appropriate, how come I can’t find it on the Post Web site? “We pulled it after the campaign called and complained bitterly about it, in part because it was a very minor item.”
No Comment “‘He’s a genius,’ says actor Tim Busfield, who plays Concannon, which is about the eighth time a cast member has begun drooling over Sorkin during a reporter’s two-day visit to the set. ‘We’ve been around long enough. We’ve seen the dregs. You don’t get writing like this outside of maybe “thirtysomething” [which Busfield starred on]. Aaron is the difference between The Washington Post and some free rag at the corner.’”
—Sharon Waxman, the Washington Post, March 8.—David Carr
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