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

Screenshot 2016-01-12 10.19.44

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!

    Screenshot 2016-02-03 07.37.34

    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?

    Screenshot 2016-02-03 07.43.20

    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.


Who said it? Xi Jinping or … George Bush, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Nancy Pelosi or Henry Kissinger?

Images of Xi Jinping at the Sept. 3 military victory parade were shared around the world. But who is the Chinese leader and what does he stand for?

Images of Xi Jinping at the Sept. 3 military victory parade were shared around the world. But who is the Chinese leader and what does he stand for?

Chinese President Xi Jinping is coming to the United States, and very few Americans (or even American journalists) know much about the leader of the nation’s most populous country.

With apologies to Vladimir Putin, he has been called the most powerful leader in the world. But what does that mean?

Is Xi a reformer? Is he a hardliner? Is he a step forward, a step back — or both? Is he firmly in control or fearful of rivals within the ruling elite — or both? Is “Big Daddy Xi” widely popular or the beneficiary of a manufactured cult of personality?

As much as I’ve learned about China over the past two years, I still have a lot to learn. For additional background, I recommend you check out my former Philadelphia Inquirer colleague Jim Mann’s recent commentary in the Washington Post:

For American pundits, China isn’t a country. It’s a fantasyland.

In the meantime, test your knowledge of who Xi Jinping is — and isn’t — by taking this news quiz. Which of these statements are from Xi and which are from other world figures? Good luck.

For answers, scroll to the bottom of the post, after the final photo. Click on the quotations to read the original source material.

President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping have been careful to treat the other with respect and discuss fundamental disagreements without alienating the other nation's leadership.

President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping have been careful to treat the other with respect and discuss fundamental disagreements without alienating the other nation’s leadership.

Who said the following?


1. Japan is “eating our lunch.”

a) Xi Jinping

b) Donald Trump

c) Paul Prudhomme


2. “(We must) make terrorists become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting ‘beat them!’

a) Xi Jinping

b) George W. Bush

c) Donald Rumsfeld


3. “Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us.”

a) Xi Jinping

b) Pat Buchanan

c) Chris Christie


4. “America must be a light to the world, not just a missile.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Barack Obama

c) Nancy Pelosi

d) George H.W. Bush


5. A cooperative United States-China relationship is “essential to global stability and peace.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Barack Obama

c) Henry Kissinger


6. “To build a community of common destiny, we need to pursue common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security.”

a) Xi Jinping

b) George W. Bush

c) Margaret Thatcher

d) Ronald Reagan


7. “Our people love life and expect better education, more stable jobs, better income, more reliable social security, medical care of a higher standard, more comfortable living conditions, and a more beautiful environment.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Pope Francis

c) Raul Castro

d) Barack Obama


8. “Japan is not being nice to us.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Donald Trump

c) Franklin D. Roosevelt

d) Theodore Roosevelt


9. “Resolute and decisive measures must be taken and high pressure must be maintained to crack down on violent terrorists who have been swollen with arrogance.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Barack Obama

c) Binyamin Netanyahu


10. “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in our way.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Barack Obama

c) Binyamin Netanyahu


11. “The international forces are shifting in a way that is more favorable to maintaining world peace.”

a) Xi Jinping

b) Shinzō Abe

c) Barack Obama

c) Hassan Rohani


12. “We should uphold the idea that working hard is the most honorable, noblest, greatest and most beautiful virtue.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Margaret Thatcher

c) Marco Rubio

d) Ronald Reagan


13. “When did we beat Japan at anything?

a) Xi Jinping

b) Donald Trump

c) Michael Keaton in “Mr. Mom”

d) The captain of the U.S. Olympic baseball team


14. “Our strength comes from the people and masses. We deeply understand that the capability of any individual is limited, but as long as we unite as one, there is no difficulty that we cannot overcome.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Bernie Sanders

c) Mao Zedong

d) Ronald Reagan


15. “Economic growth … is going to come from the private sector. But the No. 1 thing government can do to encourage that growth is get out of the way.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Deng Xiaoping

c) Ted Cruz


16. “As Deng Xiaoping said, we must ‘seek truth from facts.’

a) Xi Jinping

b) Barack Obama

c) George H.W. Bush



17. “People should not underestimate me.”

a) Xi Jinping

b) George W. Bush

c) Bernie Sanders

d) Vladimir Putin


18. “The Communist Party is keenly aware one of the reasons its predecessor in China, the Nationalists, lost the Chinese civil war in 1949 was because of the terrible corruption under their rule, costing them public support.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Henry Kissinger

c) Jim Mann, American journalist and author of The China Fantasy

d) Wang Jiarui, head of the Communist Party of China’s international department


19. “When China and the United States work together, we can be an anchor for world stability and the propeller of world peace.

a) Xi Jinping

b) George W. Bush

c) Dan Quayle

d) Rick Perry


20. “Our two nations are poised to take an historic step forward on the path of peaceful cooperation and economic development. I’m confident that our trip will be a significant success, resulting in a stronger U.S.-China relationship than before. For Americans, this will mean more jobs and a better chance for a peaceful world.

a) Xi Jinping

b) Barack Obama

c) John Kerry

d) Ronald Reagan


Answers below this photo.

XI Jinping is honored in Iowa, where he lived several decades ago.

XI Jinping is honored in Iowa, where he lived several decades ago.

1.b; 2.a; 3.a; 4.c; 5.c; 6.a; 7.a; 8.b; 9.a; 10.c; 11.a; 12.a; 13.b; 14.a; 15.c; 16.b; 17.c; 18.d; 19.a ; 20.d

Experimenting with data visualization: Here are some interactive graphics I have developed

Teaching Data Journalism at Tsinghua. (Photo by Zhang Sihan)

Teaching Data Journalism at Tsinghua. (Photo by Zhang Sihan)

Data journalism has become an indispensable part of the news world. Every journalist who hopes to have a job in five or ten years will be required to have at least a basic understanding of spread sheets, data scraping, data cleaning, data visualization and coding.

As part of the new Data Journalism course I have created for the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University, I am experimenting with data visualization platforms. Here are a few examples. (If my WordPress blog platform will not allow you to open the embedded graphics, you can click on the links to take you to the pages where you can view them.)

I’d love to get your feedback … and some suggestions on platforms that could be useful for data viz projects.



Data from currencies-vs-dollar.silk.co


Data from currencies-vs-dollar.silk.co



Ten impossible dreams for 2015, from Louie Gohmert to Chris Christie

Chris Christie and the Joneses: A bro-hug for the ages.

Chris Christie and the Joneses: A bro-hug for the ages.

It’s a New Year, and everybody can dream big. In politics, every governor and senator, every Clinton and Bush, can dream of getting elected president next year. In sports, every team can dream of winning the championship. (Well, maybe not the Philadelphia 76ers.) In Hollywood, every crappy moviemaker can dream of hitting the jackpot with a smutty pseudo-farce involving a controversial world figure.

So many dreams. So little time.

To save time, here are 20 quests that, like Don Quixote de la Mancha, are not likely to end in success.

Louie Gohmert practices his sharpshooting in Quantico, Va.

Louie Gohmert practices his sharpshooting in Quantico, Va.

1. House Speaker Louie Gohmert

Not gonna happen. Only on Planet Colbert.

2. Republican presidential frontrunner Rick Perry

Too many Texans — or brothers of Texans … or blood brothers of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — in the race. Plus there are those precious memories of the 2012 campaign.

3. Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles

It’s never happened. Why should this upcoming season be any different? (Even though it will be 2016 before we know for sure.)

4. Respected sports owner Dan Snyder

Only one hope for redemption: Replace that racist football team nickname with the Washington Generals to honor the Great American War Machine — and to commemorate the only team to lose thousands of times to the Harlem Globetrotters.

5. Academy Award winning film “The Interview”

Let’s be more realistic: A Razzy for worst movie, worst director, worst actor, worst supporting actor, worst idea for a movie.

6. Popular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

For a man who got re-elected by an overwhelming majority in a Democratic state, the Joisey guvn’r has managed to alienate almost everybody outside of the Dallas Cowboys owners’ box. Eagles, Giants and Lions fans top the long, long list, followed by George Washington Bridge commuters, Republican conservatives and citizens who believe in civil discourse. At least he isn’t running for anything in the future.

7. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer

The New York Democrat has been waiting and waiting and waiting for Majority Leader Harry Reid to depart the Senate, either voluntarily or not. Then the voters messed everything up by putting the Republicans in the majority.

8. Authoritative magazine Rolling Stone

It gathers no moss, but it gathers lots of other smelly stuff as a result of the UVa rape story debacle. Some click-bait web site could do a Rolling Stone “top ten ways to destroy what’s left of your reputation.”

9. An all-Southeast Conference national championship game

We got the mini-playoff that the for-profit college football conferences wanted and then two non-SEC teams ruined it all. Proving that even the most powerful interests can’t always control everything.

10. Penn State professor Tom Corbett

Pennsylvania’s ex-governor could use a job, but it’s not going to be in Happy Valley, where everybody is mad at him for his ham-fisted role in the Joe Paterno affair. Paterno’s friends and family despise the man — and did whatever they could to defeat him. Paterno’s critics marvel at his incompetence. No Ph.D. here.