Monday, May 28, 2012

Jay Rosen's Horse Race Journalism and the Egyptian Presidential Election

Several days ago, I had lunch with several reporters, all of whom were covering Egypt’s elections. They were wound up tightly with nervous energy, and let it out by scrolling through Twitter on their smart phones. 

Everyone had been stunned the day before. The two front-runners were in fourth and fifth place. The Brotherhood’s candidate, who many people had called a “spare tire” because he was a last minute substitute, would be competing with Mubarak’s last prime minister. The Western reporters, many of whom are friends with liberal and leftist young Egyptians, were just as tense. I felt my chair jiggling and looked over to see a reporter’s leg pumping up and down, making the table quiver and sending the energy throughout all the connected furniture.

We had all just attended a press conference with President Carter, packed into a conference hall at the Four Seasons. Surrounded by over twenty bodyguards, Carter had begun with an affable “Good afternoon everybody!” and then launched into a long list of complaints over his election observation team’s lack of access to the polls. “Usually we go wherever we wish,” he said. “There is no way for us to certify that this process has been fair.”

Carter began to take questions and called on a international television reporter. The reporter had the perfect cadence of a television news anchor. I had met him before and knew this wasn’t his normal voice, and I was amazed by his ability to turn it on and sound like Peter Jennings. The photographers looked bored, because once they had a few shots of Carter sitting and speaking, there was little else for them to shoot. Every time Carter gestured with his hands, I heard a wave of camera clicks, trying to capture the more interesting image he was momentarily giving them.

When the press conference ended, everyone applauded. It felt like rare moment, like applauding in church after a sermon. “In Egypt, everyone just loves Jimmy,” I overheard one reporter say.

Many of these reporters, a few hours later, would be at the Brotherhood press conference. Then, they would move en masse to a press conference by Hamdeen Sabbahi, the unlikely third place candidate. All the while, they would be trying to make sense of an extremely complicated set of political machinations: What would each of the candidates who failed to make the run-offs do? Would they side with a winner hoping desperately to keep the Brotherhood or the former regime people out of the presidency?

Few seemed to mention that the president’s duties were still hopelessly unclear, that the constitution hadn’t even been written yet. I realized that I was watching what NYU Professor Jay Rosen calls “Horse-Race Journalism,” who is ahead today, who is behind, etc. He describes it as “a reusable model for how to do campaign coverage in which you focus on who’s going to win rather than what the country needs to settle by electing a prime minister.” It “imagines the campaign as a sporting event.” Joan Didion called American campaign coverage a game of Insider Baseball in 1988. “These are people,” she wrote of campaign reporters, “who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.”

I’ve been reading Rosen’s excellent blog of press criticism for several months, and had been trying to think about how to apply some of his ideas about journalism to what I see in Egypt. He doesn’t write a lot about foreign correspondents, so I’ve had to be creative in drawing the links. With the election, it’s easy. In 2008, Rosen wrote about campaign reporters in the U.S. as a “herd of independent minds” who use horse-race journalism to “play up their detachment” and appear as insiders who can give special information on what will happen in the election and why, rather than what the point is. He writes:

“Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit roundtable turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there’s an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion. But a potent one.”

He continues:

“Imagine if we had them all — the whole Gang of 500 — in a room and we asked them (off the record): How many of you feel roughly qualified to be Secretary of State? Ted Koppel having retired, no hands would go up. Secretary of the Treasury? No hands. White House Chief of Staff? Maybe one or two would raise a hand. Qualified to be President? No one would dare say that. Strategist for a presidential campaign? I’d say at least 200 hands would shoot up. Reporters identify with those guys — the behind-the-scenes message senders — and they cultivate the same knowledge.
What a waste! Journalists ought to be bringing new knowledge into the system.”

During the Egyptian election, the horse race is far more interesting than it is in even a particularly gripping American election. It’s the first time the result is not preordained by a dictator. There are more candidates. The stakes are higher, because the winner has no clear powers and thus might take huge powers. All kinds of historical forces that swam under the surface during Mubarak’s years are now in the open view, ripe for the analyst’s speculation.

In fact, much coverage of Middle East politics operates like a slow-motion horse-race. The election season in Egypt has simply been a faster, more tiring version of the endless political machinations that have dominating Egypt's news every since the revolution (and Iraq's news since the invasion and Lebanon's news for decades). Everyone writes about the jockeying for power thats played out between the military council, the Brotherhood, and the revolutionaries over the last year. It often feels like the battle is the point in and of itself, rather than what any of these given groups aim to do for the country and why Egyptians support one group or another. 

Rosen’s point about horse-race journalism allows us to see that getting wrapped up in the excitement of who will side with whom, who will turn on whom, and who will be the take-all winner is fun for journalists and bad for their readers, the public. The press painted a narrative in which Amr Moussa, Mubarak’s former foreign minister, and Brotherhood breakaway Abdel Moneim Abuel Fotoh were the frontrunners. Many figured that these guys had enough votes, so they picked Sabbahi, Morsy, and Shafik. And then what happened? Sabbahi, Morsy, and Shafik beat Moussa and Abuel Fotoh. Many Egyptians felt like they would have voted differently knowing what they know now.

Rosen believes that an alternative model might involve asking what the public wants. “What are the issues they want to see the candidates discussing? And then to ask each day ‘How did we do at advancing the discussion citizen’s agenda today?” Of course, his question needs to be rephrased for foreign correspondents. What is the point of covering the endless machinations of politics in other countries? Do they have any obligations to the global public that consumes their reporting?

“If journalists helped citizens get their agenda addressed during the campaign,” he explains, “they would be performing a role that’s very important.” That's true, and the questions are only more complex when they aren't citizens.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. Glad to be use somehow. Very challenging assignment you have.

    I believe I said reporters use horse race coverage to “play up their detachment,” not their "attachment."