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.

 


Ten things I really miss living in China — and ten I definitely do not

Birthday barbecue: Plates of tasty food at Home Plate BBQ in Beijing (with Troy Hernandez, Agnes Kreitz, Sara Balajthy, Caroline Ward and Mengfei Chen)

Birthday barbecue: Plates of tasty food and chocolate cake at Home Plate BBQ in Beijing (with Troy Hernandez, Agnes Kneitz, Sara Balajthy, Caroline Ward and Mengfei Chen)

It’s been nearly three months since I arrived in Beijing, and I’ve finally had my first attack of homesickness.

It started two weeks ago with a trip to a local Western market to pick up the fixings for macaroni and cheese (the real thing, not the Kraft version). It was followed by my birthday dinner of Texas BBQ and chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. Then I broke down completely yesterday and went to Jenny Loo’s supermarket with my friend Eunice. My haul — a rare taste of Americana — included fresh bagels (“Montreal style”), feta cheese, olives, canned diced tomatoes for pasta sauce, fresh tortillas, tortillas chips, salsa, peanut butter and a Woody Allen movie.

A pretty pricey splurge, all told, except for the Woody Allen movie (“Midnight in Paris”), which cost 13 yuan, or $2.16.

I’m whipping up my famous linguini tonight with some of my big food purchase. But before I do, here’s a quick list of ten things I really miss after 11 weeks in China — and some that I decidedly do not.

What I miss:

1. My wife and family

2. The National Press Club

3. Live NHL hockey

4. Hummus

5. My good friends back home

6. Weekend trips to Philadelphia or New York

7. Trader Joe’s

8. Gossiping with my Texas political sources

9. Good wine at good prices

10. Target

What I Don’t Miss:

1. CNN

2. American cable news in general

3. The newspaper world I left behind

4. Cable TV

5. Congress

6. Driving

7. Texas BBQ (I’ve been surprised by the fine barbecue here.)

8. The Washington football team with the racist name

9. Rush Limbaugh and the vast right wing conspiracy

10. U.S. media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination