The 2016 presidential candidates are criss-crossing New Hampshire as they enter the home stretch before the first-in-the-nation primary. Polls show the horse race is too close to call. With candidates running neck-and-neck, the air war is ferocious, but the ground game could be a game-changer. Only time will tell. This tight race is make-or-break for Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Jim Gilmore … well, all of them. It is the most important primary of 2016.
Until the next one in South Carolina.
Watching a presidential primary contest unfold from my living room (for the first time since 1972), I have been impressed by the legion of young reporters following the dozen-plus presidential candidates. (H/T Al Weaver and Alexandra Jaffe) But I also have been less-than-impressed by the cliché-littered coverage by many political reporting veterans and partisan pundits, particularly on cable television.
Here is a list of ten terrible clichés that I would ban from 2016 presidential stories … if I had the power of Donald Trump to shape news coverage.
- LANES. Enough of this garbage about “lanes.” There is no “Establishment lane,” “Evangelical lane,” “moderate lane,” “mainstream lane,” “Kasich lane,” “socialist lane” or “Penny Lane.” This is a really stupid rhetorical device. Average Americans don’t have any idea what you’re yammering about. Enough!
- SECRET WEAPONS. I’ve seen the story about Ted Cruz’s wife being his secret weapon. And the one about Bernie Sanders’ wife being his secret weapon. And Hillary Clinton’s husband being her secret weapon. That is one over-used cliché. Why are spouses “secret weapons”? They’re not secret. And they’re not weapons. Please retire this sexist, martial metaphor.
- NARRATIVE. As in “controlling the narrative.” Or a campaign’s “narrative.” “Narrative” is a means of storytelling. It is a big stretch to use it as a substitute for “setting the agenda.” To those of us who care about good writing, the word “narrative” is a valuable word that should not be devalued through misuse and overuse.
- -MENTUM. The reporter who talked about “Marco-mentum” this week thought he was being clever. No, sir. A name with the suffix “-mentum” is the new all-purpose cliché for momentum, and it’s not funny or clever. Maybe it was clever in 2004, when Democratic presidential candidate coined the term “Joe-mentum” for the (non-existent) momentum generated by his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. In 2016, it’s become such a cliché that it has become a tongue-in-cheek hashtag mocking former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore’s Quixotic quest for the GOP nomination. (#Gilmentum).
- GAME CHANGER. If Joe-mentum is a 2004 cliché, “game changer” is a throwback to 2008, when the book (and subsequent movie) “Game Change” chronicled Sarah Palin’s impact on that year’s presidential race. Now it’s used for just about any plot twist in the presidential race. Pundits predict, with dubious reliability, that it may be a “game changer.” How many changes can there be in the game? This year, way too many.
- DOUBLE DOWN. The third and final golden-oldie that should be banned from all political coverage: the term “double down.” It seems to be used almost weekly when Donald Trump says something the media considers outrageous and then, rather than apologizing and backing down, he says it again and again and again. Perhaps it is appropriate that Trump, who has made and lost billions in the gambling biz, should be the subject of a gambling-related cliché. This once was a term defining an audacious and risky strategy, but “double down” is so overused that it has lost its journalistic impact, if it ever had any.
- RE-SET THE RACE. This is what happens when a losing candidate hopes to change the dynamics of a presidential contest. The week before the New Hampshire primary, we are hearing that Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and other presidential candidates are trying to “re-set the race.” There is no need for a mechanical metaphor. Why not say that they’re hoping to remain viable?
- POLL OF POLLS. This concept is a methodologically fraudulent way that a news outlet can create artificial news by averaging a group of polls to develop its own “poll of polls.” News outlets in England used this technique — with disastrous journalistic consequences — during last year’s British parliamentary elections. CNN has resurrected its own “poll of polls” for the 2016 election. How accurate was the CNN Poll of Polls in Iowa? Not very.
- TOO CLOSE TO CALL. This is a legitimate analytical term that is misused by journalists who seek melodramatic effect. It is often used to describe poll results. It should never be used to describe poll results. Polls are not “too close to call.” Elections are only too close to call when, on election night, the margin is so small that the result cannot be predicted until more results are in. However, once 100 percent of the returns are in, and one candidate has won by 0.3 percentage points, the race is not too close to call. It is over, and one candidate has won. By a very tiny margin.
- BREAKING NEWS. This term should be banned on cable news, social media and press releases. News breaks once. It doesn’t break all night, after every commercial break, on television. A candidate dropping out of the race is breaking news. Once. When it happens. Scheduled events — like primary elections, caucuses and State of the Union speeches — are not breaking news. They are scheduled events. If you’re reporting that 16 percent of the precincts are reporting their results (instead of the previous 14 percent), it is not breaking news. It is an update.
This list of clichés is incomplete. Feel free to add your own contributions in the comments section below.
Flashback: My 2013 article on Birtherism 2.0 and Canadian-born Ted Cruz’s eligibility to serve as presidentPosted: January 5, 2016
I woke up this morning in Beijing to a tweetstorm fomented by Donald Trump’s new birther conspiracy: raising questions about Ted Cruz’s eligibility to be president. Here is a story I posted on Texas on the Potomac in 2013, when it was growing increasingly likely that the Canadian native would seek the U.S. presidency. In case you’re interested, here is what I wrote:
It seems like an obscure court case from a dusty old law book, but if Canadian-born Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ever decides to run for president, you’re likely to hear a lot about the United States v. Wong Kim Ark.
In that 1898 case, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-2 to repudiate the exclusive language of the infamous Dred Scott case and create an expansive definition of the Constitution’s “natural-born citizen” clause.
That’s important because the Constitution requires that the U.S. president be a natural-born citizen –and Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1970. Cruz, who is being urged to run for president in 2016 by some conservative activists, argues that he is a natural-born citizen because his mother was an American citizen. His father, now a naturalized American, was born in Cuba.
As the Cruz-for-president talk heats up on the right, some bloggers on the left have argued that the strict interpretation of the Founding Fathers’ words that Cruz claims to worship would disqualify a Canadian-born American from serving as president.
Five years after celebrity billionaire Donald Trump and a motley assortment of conservatives raised questions about a liberal Democratic candidate’s American birthplace, the shoe is on the other foot.
Call it Birtherism 2.0.
“It is ironic that a Tea Party favorite might be blocked from serving as president by one of the Tea Party’s favorite constitutional provisions,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala.
The question of presidential qualifications has never directly reached the Supreme Court. But there is a wide range of jurisprudence on the issue — which overwhelmingly favors the notion that Cruz is eligible to serve as president.
Ironically, the same legal logic that confirms Cruz’s eligibility would have permitted Barack Obama to serve as president even if he had been born in Kenya, because his mother was a U.S. citizen.
The most comprehensive study of the issue was a 2009 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which cited English Common Law principles and American legal scholarship dating back to 1833.
“The weight of scholarly and historical opinion appears to support the notion that ‘natural born citizen’ means one who is entitled under the Constitution or laws of the United States to U.S. citizenship ‘at birth’ or ‘by birth,’ including …those born abroad of one citizen parent who has met U.S. residency requirements,” wrote Jack Maskell, a CRS legislative attorney.
So why the controversy?
Because, as in so many cases, the Constitution’s authors were silent on the meaning of the phrase “natural-born citizen,” leaving it to generations of constitutional scholars to divine their thoughts.
T. Gerald Treece, a professor at South Texas College of Law, said that despite the Founders’ silence on the subject, their intentions are easy to understand.
“The Founding Fathers merely did not want any British or other foreign subjects to become naturalized and, therefore, eligible to become president,” said Treece.
He said legal precedents focus on an individual’s status “at time of birth.”
“Most authorities agree that, if at time of birth, you are born to U.S. citizens — where they reside — then you are a U.S. citizen at time of birth,” Treece added.
But because the Supreme Court has never directly addressed the issue, it has been a subject of argument for centuries.
in 1881, some Democrats contended that Republican Vice President Chester A. Arthur was born in Canada and ineligible to succeed assassinated President James A. Garfield. But Arthur insisted he was born in Vermont, had a birth certificate and was sworn in as president.
in 1964, some critics of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater said he was barred from the presidency because he was born in Arizona before the territory gained statehood. The challenges got nowhere.
Four years later, Michigan Gov. George Romney sought the presidency although he was born in Mexico, where his American parents were living in a Mormon colony. The Mexican constitution in effect at the time of Romney’s birth in 1907 restricted citizenship to the children of Mexican nationals. So there was no issue off dual citizenship to cloud Romney’s campaign.
In 2008, both presidential nominees faced lawsuits to disqualify them based on their place of birth.
GOP nominee John McCain, the son of a Naval officer, was born in the Panama Canal Zone, then a U.S. territory, in 1937, months before Congress approved a law guaranteeing birthright citizenship to children of military personnel serving abroad. To erase any doubt, the U.S. Senate approved a bipartisan resolution confirming McCain’s citizenship, and a legal challenge to his eligibility was rejected.
There was far more fuss over false claims that McCain’s Democratic rival, Barack Obama, was born in Africa. A series of lawsuits were tossed out of court.
None of the anti-Obama “birthers” has stepped forward to challenge Cruz.
“I doubt that birthers will go after Cruz because he is ideologically compatible with them,” said Carleton College political scientist Steven E. Schier.
After the “birther” circus of 2008, friends and foes of Cruz say they’re ready to focus on his political positions, not his birthplace.
“The ‘birther’ issue — whether it’s Barack Obama, John McCain or Ted Cruz — has always been nothing more than a pointless hyperpartisan distraction and remains one,” says Democratic consultant Harold Cook.
Here’s the 2009 CRS document: