The jury has returned a true verdict: The press and the pundits, which forecast a gaudy red wave, got it horribly, terribly, magnificently wrong.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank and Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein, among others, presented the receipts after the election to scold the reporters and columnists who had so confidently crystal-balled a sweeping Republican triumph.
The beatings passed out to the press and commentariat have been well deserved. If you pick a pony and he loses, you should pay some sort of price. But at this late date in our political progress, why should anybody place much faith in election prognostications? Surely readers and viewers must have remembered the 2016 election, where the Saturday before Election Day, the Princeton Election Consortium expressed the press/pundit consensus by pegging Hillary Clinton’s chance of winning at 99 percentbefore she dramatically lost three days later.
Apparently not. As the political press reported out the 2022 campaign like 2016 never happened, making their many wrong-headed prophecies about the red wave, readers, who should have known better, lapped up their prophecies until they had to barf them out the next day.
The press can’t blame faulty polls for their blown prediction this time, as they did in 2016. As Grid’s science reporter Dan Vergno and others have recently reported, independent pollsters presented fairly accurate portraits of voter sentiment this time around. Viewed in hindsight, it’s almost as if the press seers deliberately ignored the polls to make their inaccurate predictions. Various writers have correctly blamed the press for embracing a seemingly solid “narrative” — the president’s party traditionally takes a drubbing in the midterms, plus inflation, plus crime, plus President Joe Biden’s relatively low approval rating — to project a Republican victory. But that narrative melted all the way to the ground on Election Day, sullying the prognosticators.
We could consume additional oxygen by hunting down specific writers and outlets to apportion individual blame for the flawed 2022 coverage. But shaming people and institutions for past predictions rarely makes prognosticators more cautious about predicting again. In that way, they’re a lot like serial killers who keep killing until somebody disarms them. Instead of establishing a Bureau of Shame, a wiser use of our time would be to convince editors that the election-prediction industrial complex’s skills at predicting the future are somewhere between null and slight, and that they should confiscate the predicters’ keyboards if they insist on calling the future before it arrives.
This is not an original idea. Academics have previously made a laughingstock of the press for its predictions as have journalists like Sharon Begley and historians like Rick Perlstein. If the press and pundits were certifiably good at foretelling the future, wouldn’t they have already taken those skills to Wall Street, where having special knowledge about what is going to happen can make you a fortune? The fact that they predict elections instead of picking stocks proves that they’re as accurate as entrails-readers at seeing around corners.
In addition to not being an original idea, the notion that prediction coverage is about as scientific as a horoscope column is a view shared by many political editors and producers. Then why do they continue to green-light stories about incoming “red waves” and that certain Hillary Clinton victory? Not to deflect blame from the press, but readers seem to crave such reports and commentary, much in the way football fans — even if they don’t gamble — look forward to reading the point spread on Sunday’s games. It makes for entertaining copy and provides watercooler or Twitter chatter. It also flatters journalists, who often mistake the demand for predictions as proof of their omniscience.
By overvaluing predictive journalism, voters and the press end up undervaluing the more difficult to assemble coverage of candidates’ positions and their strengths. This is not to say that reporters or pundits should ignore polls or that horserace coverage should be abandoned. When conducted with rigor — and when presented with provisos that detail their shortcomings — polls can give voters and candidates useful sketches of what voters are thinking. Polls and horserace coverage also help candidates decide where to campaign hardest. But poor punditry can also have consequences in the real world, where predictions of a landslide for one party might depress turnout from the other.
Until the press can prove they’ve gained super-skills at predicting the future, news outlets should feel free to accept their own limitations and retire from this sordid and misleading racket.
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