Ten terrible political journalism clichés — it’s a real game-changer

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Ted Cruz’s “lane” is marked “right turn only.”

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.

  1. 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!

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    The Establishment “lane”? No such thing.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. -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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?

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    Polls can be unreliable. The “Poll of Polls” concept is inherently unscientific and dubiously reliable.

  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

 


Viewing the American media through fresh eyes

For at least a decade, I was a 24/7 news addict.

Then I went to China and went cold turkey. Surprisingly, there were no withdrawal pains. Indeed, I actually enjoyed life more and had a lot more time for useful pursuits without the pain of my addiction to CNN, MSNBC, Fox and Twitter.

So what happens when I return from Tsinghua University for winter break?

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A short relapse.

One day of CNN was enough to cure me permanently. Here are a few thoughts on the disastrous state of U.S. cable news and the rays of hope for the rest of the U.S. media:

  • There is almost no news on cable news. CNN seemed to be mostly “reporting” on stories broken by other news outlets (“CNN has confirmed”) or filing “turn of the screw” reports on developing stories. MSNBC featured lots of opinions on the news from experts and hosts. Fox was, well, it was Fox. Within an hour, I was watching the BBC. I can’t reclaim all the hours I wasted watching American cable news during my years as a reporter, but I can avoid the temptation in the future.
  • American newspapers, even though they have declined, are still a valuable information source. I know it’s been fashionable in Washington, D.C., to diss the Washington Post and lament its deterioration. Well, I have some news for you. It’s still a heck of a good newspaper with a lot more exclusive news and analysis in one issue than you get in a day of cable news. I can’t vouch for the quality of the regional press, but the print versions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal can compete with the best papers in the world.
  • Newspaper web sites have become schizophrenic. There are two kinds of news web sites: (1) the good and (2) the bad and the ugly. The NY Times and the WaPo give you serious, substantive information with some very good interactive features. Most sites, like my former employer’s site, are desperately seeking clicks through crime, crashes, celebrities, boobs, animals, weirdness and weather. The quality gap between the good and the bad U.S. news sites is growing rapidly. Many papers have adopted a two-tiered system with quality content hidden behind a paywall. That may be a good business model — it remains to be seen — but it is a highly questionable journalistic model. After a semester of teaching multimedia journalism, I believe even more strongly that modern journalism is about community-building. Hiding behind paywalls keeps the community out and prevents non-subscribers from learning the quality journalism you may offer.
  • TV news is alienating its core audience while failing to win new viewers. None of my students — zero — watch TV news. Granted, for the Chinese students, that means state-run TV. But it’s a problem that U.S. television has, too. The younger generation wants information on demand. Social media is their favorite medium. Where does that leave television? Or newspapers? Ask my students. In my multimedia journalism course, we are re-inventing the future of multiplatform, multimedia news. Other than global leaders such as the New York Times and the Financial Times, I don’t see enough of that.
  • With all of its flaws, the U.S. media remains among the freest (and most freewheeling) in the world. We can be thankful for that.
  • Back to vacation. With the TV turned off.