After this blog was posted today, Chris Christie’s “Hell Freezes Over” tour (sorry, Eagles), otherwise known as a presidential campaign, hit a new low. The latest IMB/TIPP–for Investor’s Business Daily/TechnoMetrica Marketing Intelligence–poll shows Christie, with one per cent of the vote, tied for ninth place with Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum (there is no 10th place) in the race to the bottom for the GOP nomination. In a story published on line by IBD/TIPP, Christie isn’t even mentioned. He, Huckabee and Santorum are called “the rest of the field.” Ouch.
The headline in The Star-Ledger after the last Republican presidential debate was “IT’S ON.” in nearly two-inch high, all-capital letter, scare type, followed–mercifully, not by an exclamation point– by a curious dot. A red dot signifying what exactly? Half an exclamation point? While the headline was, at best, ambiguous, the subhead beneath it told the story, at least from the perspective of New Jersey’s largest newspaper: “While the divide between Trump and Cruz is the big news, experts say Gov. Christie’s solid debate keeps him on the rise.”
Well, no. It didn’t–and, in a moment, the figures that show the fallacy of the headline.
But, first, just a brief journey into the arcane world of journalism with this question: What in the world did that front page mean to say?
What is the “IT” that’s “ON”? If the Trump/Cruz “divide” is the “big news,” why does the state’s largest newspaper concentrate on something other than the “big news?” And the use of so-called “experts”–not just by the Ledger but by all sinking media outlets–is getting, well, tedious.
Back in the day when I worked for The Star-Ledger–and, still, today, but not so much–reporters were encouraged by their editors to keep dead stories alive by reaching out to a third party for a comment that could be magically converted into news stories. This was especially true of investigative stories where a reporter has spent loads of time coming up with shady dealings by some political figure. The story is written–and the reaction is, well, zero.
So what you do is this: You call some investigative agency. County prosecutor, say. Or state criminal justice division chief. The feds (Christie was good this way, although, often, he or one of his assistants was the source of the investigation in the first place, so the pump was primed). Most of the time, you’d get a comment like: “Well, of course, we’re interested in allegations that state Sen. Wetlands stole heron eggs and sold them on the open market in Secaucus–we’ll look into it.”
Bingo. The next day’s headline: “State to investigate Wetlands,” and the lead paragraph would contend the state is probing the allegations that “originally appeared” in Sunday’s edition of The Star-Ledger.
That sort of thing doesn’t happen so much anymore. Now newspapers talk to “experts,” mostly pollsters or some New Jersey political science prof who has made a career out of being quoted in the newspapers and calls it academic research. All that does, sadly, is let readers know the medium no longer has the gravamen and resources necessary–who is there to replace John Farmer Sr., Fred Hillman, David Wald or the late John McLaughlin?– to post its own solid, insightful analysis of what is going on.
The point of the exercise illustrated by the “IT’S ON.” headline is not to inform readers, but to generate digital interest in an ephemeral and now dying story. To generate the “clicks” necessary to build a case for advertising revenue online.
My career began in 1964 at a time when newspaper editors believed they pretty much knew what was best for their readers. My editor back then, Mort Pye, believed everyone–just everyone–should be interested (or informed, even if not interested) in public education and so I spent decades making sure my readers, for good or ill, got everything Mort wanted them to know about education. Others did the same for the environment and law and medicine and science and labor.
Now, it’s pretty much the opposite. Now editors often chase what they believe might be trends, looking for what their customers want, not what they need. They listen to focus groups. They hire consultants. And, most of all, they keep track of “clicks”–the number of times readers click their mouses (mice?) to look at a story. Indeed, some reporters and photographers are paid on the basis of clicks.
Christie, I guess, generates clicks. That’s ok. He’s the governor. But what crosses the line into bad journalism is permitting the desire for clicks to trump–how can I not use the word?–good editorial judgment. That’s happening now with The Star-Ledger and Christie, the ridiculous presidential candidate.
The “IT’S ON.” headline tried to tell readers Christie’s star is rising, but that simply isn’t true. Because the Christie candidacy is dying. Maybe already dead. Just look at the numbers:
From the polls tracked by RealClear Politics, Christie, in Iowa, with two percent of the projected caucus vote, is tied for sixth place with Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and John Kasich. He is ahead only of Rick Santorum who gets less than one percent. He is behind Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Jeb Bush.
In New Hampshire, where Christie spends most of his time–and a lot of New Jersey taxpayer money–the results are laughable. Sure, with 7 percent of the vote, but he is still in sixth place, despite all the time and money he has spent in New Hampshire. While New Jersey slides into a wet, icy hell, he is behind Trump (31 percent), Cruz (12 percent), Kasich (11 percent), Rubio (11 percent), and Bush (8 percent).
Looking beyond New Hampshire, polls in South Carolina–the next big also put Christie, with 2 percent, in a sixth place tie with Mike Huckabee behind Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush, and Carson.
The Star-Ledger’s editorial board and its columnists–those allowed to opine about politics–have a better record than the news side. But what’s missing is a strong, fact-based analysis–without help from “experts”–of where Christie really is. Because where he really is–is nowhere. Or sixth place, which is pretty much the same place.
Of course, tonight is another debate and the headlines tomorrow in virtually every newspaper in the nation will be about who whupped the absent Trump the worst. Anyone willing to guess what The Star-Ledger will say?
But, who knows, maybe the “big news” will be Christie climbs out of sixth to, say, fifth.