06/15/2007 12:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who's Ahead? No, Seriously...

It's nice to know that Mitt Romney has pulled ahead in New Hampshire, seven months before the primary voting. Thanks, Bill Schneider! Let me ask you something: Who's ahead in addressing a broken health care system?

It's fascinating to realize that Hillary Clinton, a woman, is ahead among women. Thanks, Washington Post. In the race to protect the people against terrorism and maintain a free and open society, would the Post know who's ahead? Could it possibly find out and tell us, then check back in a month or so and tell us again?

Absorbing as it is to read Time's Jay Carney on how he reads pollster-strategist-guru Mark Penn's latest memo re-reading the latest poll readings, I'd love to know who's ahead of the pack in "how we develop and support the Internet and the use of information technology?" a pertinent question raised last month by Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry. Does Time know? Where can I find its rankings?

I don't know if you were as keen as I was to learn that Tommy Thompson will indeed "press ahead with plans to participate in Iowa's presidential straw poll despite the decision by two top contenders to skip the August event, raising questions about its value as a political test." By any measure that is solid horse race news. But I would be even keener to know which of the candidates is out front on problems in the schools, including the ones in Iowa.

Last week, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a column about a post of mine dating from four years ago: The Master Narrative in Journalism. Meaning: "The story that produces all the other stories." The example I used to illustrate it was the horse race narrative in campaign reporting...

In standard coverage of political campaigns, where one goal is always to appear non-partisan and above the fray, the master narrative has for a long time been winning-- who's going to win, who seems to be winning, what the candidates are doing to win, how much money it takes to win, how the primary in South Carolina is critical to winning and so on. Reporters call this the horse race, one of the rare occasions on which they have aptly named their own master narrative and recognized it as a story machine-- almost an appliance for cooking news.

Most people who pay attention to politics know that candidates who cannot win are safely ignored by the press until they threaten to affect the outcome. Then they become part of the story because they fit its terms. Winning, then, is the story that produces all (or almost all) the other stories; and when you figure in it you are likely to become news. This is a relatively non-partisan, apparently neutral, sometimes technical and of course reusable device, easily operated, and it maintains an agreed-upon narrative, which then maintains the press tribe as one tribe. In this way, master narratives resembles myths as anthropologists understand them.

Because they're handy, known to all, and they make almost any story more immediately writable, existing master narratives are hard to change. Even when they stop making a lot of sense culturally they may still make for consensus within an occupational culture, and thus prevail past their date of expiration.

Carroll knows this: "It's not that the media are unaware of the inadequacies of horse-race coverage. That's a pretty common conversation in newsrooms." (True for more than 20 years.) "The question that has so far not been answered: If not that, then what?"

If we dropped or drastically downgraded the horse race narrative, what we would use instead?

Good question! Good time to be asking. Reacting to Carroll, Brad DeLong (Berkeley economist and news blogger, a faithful critic of the press) had a few ideas:

The alternative--the better--master narratives are "which of these policy proposals would be best for the country?" and "what did we learn today about whether so-and-so would make a good or a bad president?"

Good start, if we're thinking replacement for a burned out set of story instructions. But maybe what we need to replace is the idea of one set.

Political journalism today is conducted under different premises about who can conduct it. This is all to the good. Different players contribute to the build-up of knowledge about the candidates. Different ideas can be alive at once.

Mitch Ratcliffe had it right a couple years ago: "The point of innovation in media is to expand, not simply to displace, the voices that existed before." Electoral politics is where we replace one group of voices with another.

Shortly after my master narrative post I tried to suggest a practical alternative to that remarkably durable story-organizer who's gonna win. The occasion was an election: the California recall vote that made Arnold Schwarzenegger the governor in 2003. (Replacement.)

My advice: Cut down on who's ahead in the horse race--at the time there were 133 candidates, among them Arianna Huffington--and tell us who's ahead in the ideas-for-California race. Since there are lots of problems facing the people of California lots of ideas will have to be floated before the final test of strength at the polls. The candidates will either participate well, participate weakly or opt out. Their choice.

This was my stab at a workable compromise with "who's ahead?" The Idea Race-- but with live rankings. Today ingenuity, leg work and good judgment are required to say who's doing the best in meeting the test of presidential seriousness around the health care mess. (And who's in second place.) Persistence is required to maintain and revise the grid as new information comes in.

Such reporting does exist. See most recently The Poverty Platform (June 10). It's Matt Bai of the New York Times magazine covering the clear frontrunner in the speaking to poverty race, John Edwards. Of course it would be good to know who's in last place, too, or deaf to the issue. Or saying stuff that's not true. (As we know: "Sometimes, they're just plain wrong.")

The idea race isn't just candidates. You probably saw that Bono is trying to take the poverty issue global, with the help of ex-senate leaders Bill First and Tom Daschele and $30 million. They mean "to pressure the presidential candidates to focus" on it. Meanwhile, Bill Gates and Eli Broad are "joining forces for a $60 million foray into politics in an effort to vault education high onto the agenda of the 2008 presidential race." But what are they going to do with all that money? Broadcast messages?

In idea race coverage, you might ask that. Mainly you'd focus on what the candidates are doing, saying and suggesting about, say, poverty (rural and urban, domestic and global) regardless of whether they and their consultants plan to focus on it. Then you rank them 1-12 and explain how you did it in an FAQ. If the campaigns squawk there will be another ranking in a month. Keep improving the way you come up with the rankings and you got yourselves a little election-year franchise.

I still think the idea race could work as a pattern shifter for the mainstream press precisely because it is not a big departure but a marginal improvement in the old master narrative-- an incremental fix, which may be all the legacy media can handle at the moment.

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University, and writes the blog PressThink,, where this first appeared. During the 08 campaign, he'll be collaborating with the Huffington Post on OfftheBus.Net. What is it? "Campaign coverage by people who aren't in the club. Or on the bus."