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.

 


16 bold predictions for 2016 (including ‘Cruz schlongs Trump’)

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The bromance is headed for a rocky break-up in 2016.

The pundits were soooooo wrong in 2015 that it seems silly for anyone to pull out the crystal ball again. Especially in the midst of the most unpredictable Republican presidential nominating process in … what, four years? (President Gingrich, President Santorum, President Perry, we hardly knew ye.)

But since so many pundits make good salaries predicting things that don’t come true, I’m going to let you in on some things that are as solid as Sears. (OK, if you’re under 50 years old, you probably don’t understand that line.)

Here are my 16 bold predictions for 2016:

      1. The New York Daily News headline on Feb. 2, 2016 (the day after the Iowa caucuses): CRUZ SCHLONGS TRUMP
      2. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, drops out of the 2016 race on Feb. 3 after finishing eighth in the previous evening’s Iowa caucuses. Nobody outside of the Huckabee family notices.
      3. Donald Trump continues his slide from frontrunner status on Feb. 23 with a stinging defeat in the Nevada caucuses when fellow gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson pulls out all the stops in support of [Editor’s note: He hasn’t yet decided which non-Trump candidate he will support]. Front page editorials in the Adelson family’s Las Vegas Review-Journal strongly support [candidate to be decided upon later]. Adelson tells close friends that Trump eliminated himself from contention when he didn’t know he was supposed to say that Jerusalem is and always will be the indivisible capital of Israel — and then canceled his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in a fit of pique after Adelson buddy Bibi bashed Trump for saying he’d bar all non-citizen Muslims from the U.S. — and then used “schlong” as a verb.

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        Larry David got more attention from the mainstream media when he played Bernie Sanders on Saturday Night Live than the real candidate got when playing himself on the campaign trail.

      4. Bernie Sanders will be the Mo Udall of 2016. Without the wicked sense of humor. Favorite of the liberal liberals. String of second-place finishes. His last stand will be in the Vermont primary on March 1. But while Bernie battles for his home state’s 15 delegates chosen in the primary, Hillary Clinton will take something like 207 of the 208 Texas delegates up for grabs that day.
      5. The Republican Party in the United States will remain the only conservative party in the entire world to dispute the fact that humans contribute to climate change. Not a good strategy to win the support of young Americans, who wonder why so many old fogies can’t accept global scientific consensus.

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        Just saying no.

      6. The Democratic Party in the United States will continue to argue for protectionism and managed trade. The Tea Party will continue to argue for protectionism and managed trade. The rest of the world will wonder why America continues to have such a robust, resilient economy when its politicians seem to be trying so hard to destroy its competitiveness.
      7. America will make history again — by electing the first female president ever, the first candidate with a Spanish surname and/or the first U.S. president ever born in Canada.
      8. The next vice president’s last name will end in an “o.” Leading possibilities are Castro, Rubio or uh-oh.
      9. Ratings on MSNBC will continue to slip-slide toward oblivion. Morning Joe’s audience will be limited to the DC Beltway, Manhattan and Joe Scarborough’s family’s homes. More than 95 percent of Chris Matthews’ audience will be aged 65 and above.
      10. The Washington Post website, having passed the New York Times in online audience in 2015, will rocket ahead of CNN through a combination of good, solid, old-fashioned reporting and analysis and an understanding of viral-news marketing.
      11. The Huffington Post, having reached the limits of page views through click-bait, rewrites and journalistic trolling, reassesses its business strategy amid general stagnation.
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“Mister Hearst, tear down that wall.”

12. American newspapers continue to reassess the ill-fated paywall fad amid mounting evidence that they are destroying any potential for long-term community-building in a misguided attempt to increase short-term revenues.

13. No pro team from Philadelphia or Austin will make the playoffs in any sport.

14. Dan Snyder will continue to top the lists of “worst sports team owner,” despite his mediocre team’s miraculous 2015 run in the NFC Least division.

15. The Pyongyang Marathon will continue to be the least popular marathon in any nation’s capital. It’s on April 10, if you’re interested in signing up.

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Have you signed up yet? One-way airfare not included.

16. American newspapers and news networks will feature stories about the poisonous air in Beijing with frightening regularity, causing the Chinese government to (a) condemn the negative news coverage and (b) develop a new and improved strategy for dealing with a problem that’s not going away, despite the occasional blasts of fresh air from Siberia.

Happy New Year to all!

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Red Alert in Beijing