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Mark Nickolas

Mark Nickolas

Posted: August 12, 2008 11:30 AM

The Media's Problem Of "False Balance" Showing Itself In Electoral Map Analyses


In politics, there are three main types of analysis that are offered.

One type is from the technician who draws pretty straight-forward conclusions based solely on data. Another is from the analyst who usually offers opinion based on what they see and synthesize it based on their own experiences. The third type is from the so-called objective media.

So, I sorted the currently available electoral map projections by these three groups, putting actual pollsters and the traditional media in their own group, with the others in a third group. In all cases, each of these groups offer a Toss-Up category containing between 86 and 137 electoral votes (FiveThirtyEight.com doesn't include toss-ups and was not included).

Here's what you find:

The Pollsters Independent Groups The Media
Pollster.com
(Obama +127)
Karl Rove
(Obama +77)
MSNBC
(Obama +28)
Zogby
(Obama +127)
Real Clear Politics
(Obama +75)
Mark Ambinder
(Obama +28)
  Electoral-Vote.com
(Obama +68)
CNN
(Obama +32)
  Cook Political Report
(Obama +66)
Washington Post
(McCain +6)
Avg. = Obama +127 Avg. = Obama +72 Avg. = Obama +21

          
(Note: Charts updated to include Cook Political Report and The Washington Post per update at bottom.)

What's remarkable is just how out-of-touch the media is with their electoral map assessments. They are, by far, the only group offering an effective dead heat, while the independent groups show a modest Obama lead, and while the pollsters offer a considerable Obama lead.

So, what to make of this?

The first thing that strikes me is the vested interest that the media has in creating the appearance of a close race since they all depend on interest to drive coverage and hence ad revenue. But I actually think -- having spent a considerable amount of time wondering about this disconnect -- that this is a secondary reason.

Instead, I believe we're seeing the same personality trait we also see in politicians -- which is to only offer opinions within a comfort zone that create hyper-cautious analysis out of fear that they'll be wrong and viewed as out-of-touch or not being knowledgeable in their field. It's the fear of being wrong. Hence, it is a lot easier to rationalize a blow-out victory when you predict a close race than it is to be wrong if an expected blow-out doesn't happen.

But this problem has far deeper, and more problematic roots, and is instead an outgrowth of one of the most serious flaws in American journalism -- the exaggeration of "false balance" that we see in so many stories.

In fact, in June, I noted remarks that The Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington made concerning this very problem of a media-created false balance and its illusion of neutrality:

One of the worst things the old media do, the author and founder of HuffingtonPost.com said, is present two sides of a story as if the two sides had equal value, creating a false neutrality that often does not exist. They fall back, she said, on "the illusion of neutrality instead of ferreting out the truth."

...But, she said, the old media has "given up the truth for pursuit of a fake neutrality." As an example, she pointed to the debate over global warming and said journalists stood in the middle presenting the public with two sides.

Not only is Arianna spot-on with her media criticism in a general sense, but I suspect we're seeing it manifested in the electoral map projections they're offering today. How else can you explain that Karl Rove sees an Obama lead which is two and one-half times larger than any of these media outlets? Or how about the fact the real pollsters give Obama a lead more than four times the media margins?

What is particularly noteworthy is where the media bias lies here. It's a clear willingness to give John McCain (R) the benefit of the doubt, but not Barack Obama (D):

Group Obama McCain
MSNBC 217 189
 Ambinder 217 189
 CNN 221 189
Washington Post 168 174
 Rove 260 183
Cook Political Report 240 174
 Real Clear Politics
238 163
 Zogby 273 146
 Pollster 284
157

            
Notice that the media organizations largely give McCain the greatest number of electoral votes, while they all vastly shortchange Obama, when compared to the other groups -- a number of which are right-leaning entities (Rove and Real Clear Politics) who would likely be inclined to give McCain the benefit of the doubt with close calls in various states.

To me, this is just another piece of evidence of all that is wrong with traditional (or "old" as Arianna calls them) media. Sadly, it's these very organizations that much of the public will get its information and believe, falsely, that this presidential race is pretty much a dead heat.

And let's not forget that these same media are also pushing the meme of questioning why Obama is not leading McCain by more than five points, when in fact -- as I wrote about last week -- a five-point popular vote margin always translates into an electoral college landslide.

(Sources: MSNBC (First Read), CNN, Marc Ambinder (The Atlantic), Karl Rove, Real Clear Politics, Electoral-Vote.com, Pollster.com, Zogby.)

Mark Nickolas is the Managing Editor of Political Base, and this story was from his original post, "The Media's Problem Of "False Balance" Showing Itself In Electoral Map Analyses"

Update (1:10 pm ET): A reader noted that there are two more analyses that I missed that plays into this narrative, and which I have added to the charts above. First, The Washington Post, ridiculously, offers an analysis which has McCain leading by 6 EVs (174 to 168). Secondly, The Cook Political Report has it Obama +66 (240 to 174).

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