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Neil S. Siegel

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Does CNN Deserve to Be Reelected?

Posted: 11/08/2012 2:44 pm

I need help, and I know I am not alone. Over the past few weeks, I have been living in parallel universes. And right about now, I am thinking of breaking up with CNN.

In one universe, I pored over the national and state polls at Real Clear Politics several times a day (okay, several time an hour) and followed Nate Silver's detailed analyses on his 538 blog. I saw President Obama's likelihood of winning increase substantially -- from the 60-something percent range to just over 90 percent. I focused on the battleground states, as did Silver, because of the decisive importance of obtaining 270 votes in the Electoral College.

In the other universe, I listened to CNN each night and read its offerings online. (I avoided Fox News and MSNBC because one does not reasonably go to them for objectivity). In the CNN universe, the national polls received the overwhelming majority of the emphasis, and CNN's experts portrayed the race as simply too close to call.

Presumably, if these pundits had had to bet $1 million on the outcome and were given even odds, they would have been indifferent about which presidential candidate to support.

What was going on here? Was Silver not as brilliant and careful as he appeared to be, but completely nuts? Were the state polls not telling me what they were telling me? Were they systematically biased in the president's favor? Was CNN departing the reality-based community?

I sure wished that somebody would throw me a bone and offer some clarity. My rational brain told me that Silver was very likely right. I realized that a Romney victory was not impossible -- statistical bias is a real phenomenon, as Silver stressed. But it was very improbable that Romney would win, increasingly so over time, and yet CNN made me as anxious as all get-out.

It turns out that Silver is not nuts. He called every single state correctly (and deemed Florida a tossup). And the whole thing was over way sooner on Tuesday night than all the hype would have suggested. We don't even care when the vote counting in Florida will end!

What happened?

One possibility is that much of the media (I doubt CNN was alone) thought it made sense to focus on the national polls. After all, doing so is simpler, easier to explain, and highly correlated with the Electoral College winner as a general matter.

But that's not a good explanation. If one were interested in fairly and accurately describing the likely outcome of the presidential election, it would have made much more sense to focus on the polling in five or seven battleground states, including Ohio.

Another possibility is that the media was so terrified about being charged with liberal bias that it went out of its way to make things seem closer than a sober analysis would have supported. The media may have missed the crucial distinction between objectivity and neutrality.

Maybe that's part of what was going on. I just don't know. But I doubt many Republicans would buy that explanation.

Yet another possibility is that the media was in fact biased in a liberal direction, and it wanted to make the election seem very close so that President Obama's supporters would go out and vote.

That theory seems too cynical and conspiratorial for my taste. On the other hand, I'm a Democrat.

A different possibility: networks like CNN had a significant financial stake in portraying the election as neck-and-neck. There's nothing like ginning up viewers and ratings for the bottom line.

Economic self-interest. Now that's the sort of cynicism that makes some sense to me.

But maybe not. Perhaps political journalists are hard-wired to enjoy a horse race because that's what makes the job fun.

Who knows what the truth is. Maybe it really was very close and hindsight is 20/20.

But I'm not buying it until I hear a good explanation from CNN. Everyone in the media knows that the nail-biter national polls were not nearly as important as the polls in the battleground states. One doesn't have to be a constitutional lawyer to know this.

I focused on the state polls because this is America, we have something called the Electoral College here, and the Electoral College determines the outcome of presidential elections, not the national polls.

CNN, I'd love an explanation. I don't want to conclude that you failed in your journalistic mission. But maybe I should tune you out next time and start dating another network.

Neil S. Siegel is a professor of law and political science and co-director of the Program in Public Law at Duke Law School. He is an academic constitutional lawyer, but he learned about the Electoral College in elementary school on Long Island.

 
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