Saturday, January 07, 2006

Working the announcers

Earlier this week, Jack MacAndrew analogized between the coverage of momentum in sports and politics, respectively. But MacAndrew missed the worst part of the link between the two:
It's as though there is some invisible force at work that reinforces the efforts of those who are well-prepared and well-organized. The other team makes mistakes, and the puck or ball or whatever, always seems to slide or bounce the other way.

Some call it “getting the breaks” but I say, it's not luck or pure chance at work here. In practice, “the breaks” come to those who force them, and then move quickly to take advantage of them...

There now seems to be a growing consensus amongst the pundits that the Liberals are losing this election campaign. It would seem so. Slowly but surely the Conservatives have been inching upward in the daily tracking polls conducted by CPAC. Where the polls were showing a ten point difference, the gap is now half that, and the trend line favours the challengers as the campaign enters the crucial final weeks.
The crucial part of the analogy missed by MacAndrew is that in both sports and politics, it's easy for those covering the game to get so caught up in discussing one team's momentum that they ignore what's actually going on within the game. (And that's true regardless of whether the announcer has any real preference as to who emerges victorious.) But the consequences of that coverage are far more severe in politics.

In sports, the only harm done is to the viewer's respect for whoever's calling the game. When a football announcer goes on a rant about how Team A is completely in control of the game, it doesn't do anything to harm Team B's ability to intercept a pass and take it the other way for a touchdown. And when the rant about Team A's invincibility continues even as its content is proven wrong, the only damage is to the announcer's credibility.

But within the election, the declared momentum has a way of influencing the very game that's being described. And the campaign so far has been a textbook example of presumed momentum taking precedence over any realistic description of what's happened.

I discussed yesterday how the NDP's solid campaign has been essentially ignored by those assessing the campaign so far. But let's take a look at what's happened just this week since the Cons really took the lead among the punditocracy:

- Harper both insulted older Canadians by claiming they "aren't in touch with the country's needs", and once again couldn't convince even his own photo-op of any merit to a key Con plank;
- the Cons demonstrated total contempt for the environment by refusing to answer a Greenpeace questionnaire;
- the Cons' child care plan was again panned by interested lobby groups; and,
- Harper both conceded that he couldn't ensure a government any more ethical than the Libs', and invoked the record of one of the few Canadian political figures who deserves to be seen with even more suspicion than PMPM.

Anybody wishing to list further ones that I've missed can feel free. But all of the above stories reflect at least potential bumps in the road for the Cons: any real attention to any of them could easily undermine whatever momentum the Cons supposedly have.

Now ask how prominently these stories have been dealt with among the same pundits eager to declare the campaign won by Harper. My guess is, not very - meaning that to the extent that columnists have talked about the Cons running a clean campaign, avoiding gaffes, etc., they've done so based on wilful ignorance of what's actually happened. This is probably based far more on a desire to be seen telling a story than any real partisanship, but the effect is the same either way.

The problem is that the political game is too big for most voters to be expected to know all the action that's going on. And for lack of any easy ability to do so, all too many people have little choice but to rely on the announcers to provide an accurate description. Meaning that when the announcers keep gushing about Team A's momentum, that description may easily remain the voters' perception of what's going on - no matter how many times Team A fumbles the ball.

The Cons' supposed momentum is the flip side of the NDP's perceived lack of momentum: both find their source more in the self-reinforcing views of pundits describing the game according to their own storylines than in a complete view of what's happening. And it's one of the great tragedies of Canadian politics that the best team on the field may again be losing out because of the broadcasters' unwillingess to call all of the action.

(Edit: typo.)

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