From the editor: Political coverage as usual isn't working this year | St. Louis Public Radio

From the editor: Political coverage as usual isn't working this year

May 7, 2008

While Barack Obama has raised complaints about politics as usual, I've been wondering about political coverage as usual.

Long ago as a Washington correspondent, I learned the rules of the political coverage game. The object, generally speaking, is to be first to recognize that a race has reached the tipping point - the moment when momentum swings decisively to one side. Political reporters study the tea leaves - polls, contributions and endorsements - in hopes of spotting the definitive trend.

And what if they predict the race has reached the tipping point when it has not? Usually, that's quickly forgotten. Better to predict wrong than to be left behind while the rest of the pack declares that the outcome has become obvious. 

This year, you could see reporters and commentators still playing by those rules. Some were quick to declare John McCain finished when he ran low on money. Then they proclaimed Obama unstoppable after Iowa. When these predictions proved wrong, they were quickly replaced by new ones.

Meanwhile, voters were inventing a whole new game, shifting momentum from one candidate to another in an entertaining and exasperating series of ups and downs. For a time, it seemed that the Democratic electorate was voting with the primary intent of confounding the purveyors of conventional media wisdom.

Most of the time, reporters speculated that Clinton's chances would evaporate. And time and again, she survived to fight on. Obama's toughest brush with conventional media wisdom came recently as coverage focused on trouble brewing in the person of the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Oddly, the moment when coverage focused on Obama's flaws seems to be the moment when Obama actually reached the tipping point toward winning the nomination. Clinton needed clear momentum in Indiana and North Carolina to make her case. She didn't get it.

Maybe one lesson for the press this year is that voters have lost patience with conventional wisdom. Politics as usual may or may not change. Political coverage as usual should.