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Pundits’ prophesies may transform voters’ reality

Back in the 1960s and early ‘70s, when television first began to threaten, then replace newspapers as the primary source of news for most Americans, the smartest newspaper editors -- and the best papers -- started shifting gears.

If they could no longer provide readers with the first word on big, breaking stories, they would tell readers what those events meant; they would analyze how and why they happened. If newspapers could not compete with television for drama, impact and immediacy, they would give readers what television had neither the time nor the inclination to offer -- context and perspective.

Now, thanks to cable and the Internet, news is a 24/7 affair, and all the media are reaching far beyond reporting and analysis. No longer content with simply being the first to tell their audiences what happened yesterday -- or five hours or five minutes ago -- many journalists now want to be the first to tell readers what will happen tomorrow. Or, rather, what they think will happen tomorrow. Not to mention next week and next month and next year.

To some extent, this is understandable. Everyone likes to make predictions, and the more you know -- or think you know -- about a situation, whether it’s the New Hampshire primary or the Super Bowl, the more tempting it is to guess what will happen next. Few people are more sure of their insights than political reporters; many said as recently as Christmastime that Sen. John Kerry’s candidacy was dead.

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When a political reporter is trying to analyze what happened and why and what it means in a caucus or a primary election, it can be difficult to resist the inclination to apply those lessons to the next primary and predict its outcome -- and to persuade oneself that this is what readers and viewers want. After all, astrology columns wouldn’t be so popular if readers weren’t interested in what some presumed expert thinks will happen next.

But journalists aren’t -- shouldn’t be -- astrologists. When political journalists predict the future, their predictions often seem to eclipse -- and at times substitute for -- the reporting they’re supposed to be based on. Worse, those predictions can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Look at the coverage of Howard Dean’s post-caucus speech in Iowa.

I didn’t find that speech, or the accompanying scream, all that alarming. In fact, I thought the coverage of the speech was far more hysterical than the speech itself. To me, Dean was trying to comfort and encourage his tired, disappointed troops. It was like a pep rally after the home team had been crushed in a game it had once been heavily favored to win. Dean knew there was another big game the next week, and he was trying to rekindle his supporters’ enthusiasm and commitment.

But his comments, and his yelp, were played hundreds of times on television, mixed and remixed into virtual wallpaper in the political and cultural blogosphere. Dean’s candidacy, everyone said, was now doomed.

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As the Washington Post put it, “Dean may have blown up his presidential aspirations Monday night with that address ....

“For those who didn’t see it, the good doctor got a little wild-eyed and started shouting ‘we will go on’ to various places, ending with the White House and then emitting what appeared to be a painful, primal scream.”

So why did this become “the event of campaign 2004?” asks Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and author of the 1991 book “Feeding Frenzy.”

“Because it fit a pre-existing subtext in the mind of many reporters and editors that Howard Dean was not very presidential, that he said a lot of dumb things and that he couldn’t beat George Bush.

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“It was subconscious,” Sabato says. “The reporters didn’t suddenly turn to each other, like a lot of Deanies think, and say, ‘OK, we can use this to kill him off.’ But it fit what they believed about him, and it resulted in Dean’s demise, for all practical purposes.”

Sabato acknowledges that Dean was already in sharp decline before the media’s blanket coverage of his speech in Iowa; he did finish third in the caucuses there.

“But he wasn’t that far gone yet,” Sabato says, “and without that rush to judgment that he was gone, he would have done better in New Hampshire.”

The rush to judgment

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The journalist-as-prognosticator is not an entirely new phenomenon, of course.

“It’s pretty deeply ingrained in the fabric of journalism, going back to [Alexis] de Tocqueville’s writings about us in the 1830s,” says Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“But it’s become a much larger piece of the fabric today, and the judgments are much quicker now,” Patterson says. “It’s louder now. It’s magnified through so many more voices so much faster. It’s instant punditry. That has an echoing or magnifying effect on the public.”

Journalistic predictions may become conventional wisdom quicker than you can say “unfit” -- often with devastating consequences.

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“There’s plenty of evidence that the media have more effect than anything else on people’s perceptions,” says Patterson, the author of the 2002 book “The Vanishing Voter.”

The media don’t usually change people’s basic attitudes about such large, visceral issues as war or abortion, Patterson says, but they have “a fairly substantial effect on what people think reality is” in political campaigns and similar situations.

Patterson says that’s what happened in 1976, when “the media perception was that Jimmy Carter gathered early support because, after Watergate, voters wanted someone they could trust, and they trusted him. But our studies showed that initially, that was much more a part of the media’s thinking than it was the public’s.

“Over time, though, with the media repetition, it became a public perception too.”

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Now the media perception-cum-repetition is that Dean is unfit for the White House and that Kerry is the Democratic front-runner. Will the public, beyond New Hampshire -- beyond the voters in Tuesday’s primaries -- come to share that perception?

Tune in Wednesday for the latest predictions. Or just check Kerry’s and Dean’s horoscopes in your morning paper.

They’re likely to be equally valid.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read his previous “Media Matters” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-media.

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