Jeff Greenfield takes readers' questions on the New Hampshire screw-up and how the media cover the primaries.
Slate contributor Jeff Greenfield, CBS News' senior political correspondent, was online at Washingtonpost.com on Jan. 10 to discuss the media's New Hampshire polling screw-up, speculation of the presidential race, and other complexities of the primary races.
Jeff Greenfield: Hi, I'm Jeff Greenfield, senior political correspondent, for CBS News (the "senior" is no doubt an age-ist slur, but let that pass) and I'll be taking your questions for the next 45 minutes or so ... everything from the now-infamous New Hampshire poll screw-up to—whatever. So—we begin.
Alexandria, Va.: Hi Jeff. When did you leave CNN for CBS, and why?
Jeff Greenfield: I moved over to CBS in April. It's not complicated—I just thought it was a better fit for me now: a trade-off with less time, but a more intensive editing process—and my old ABC and CNN boss, Rick Kaplan, is in charge of the Evening News.
Crestwood, N.Y.: Enough with the empty media breast-beating about how it totally embarrassed itself in New Hampshire. As if there's going to be any change in the lowest common denominator manner in which it "covers" presidential politics! Besides, this is the best of all possible worlds for your business: months and months of stories with lots of characters to spice up the reports. You never had it better. The only possible down side is the apparent collapse of Giuliani in his firewall state of Florida, because the ultimate story that you all wanted was a Hillary/Rudy finale, and that doesn't look too likely right now.
You guys never, ever change your ways, or depart from a comfortable scenario. I mean, how many of the reporters who loathed Gore and flat-out made up lies about him in 2000 actually have apologized to him, or to us, for that matter! How many stories do we get about the flip-flops and dissembling by Sen. Straight Talk? Hope that's not too cynical.
Jeff Greenfield: Let me put aside the Gore part of the question and agree—mostly—with your skepticism if not cynicism about the prospects of change. The predictive impulse is in the DNA. I was struck by the Brokaw-Matthews exchange when Brokaw suggested we stop predicting and Chris said, in effect, well then we should just stay home, as if there was no other enterprise—say, maybe, reporting economic and cultural shifts in the electorate, political history and such. One hopeful note—this came really early and maybe in some quarters it will act as a restraining mechanism—for, say, two weeks.
Boston: Jeff, don't beat yourself up for being wrong about Hillary in New Hampshire. Even Wall Street chiefs and hedge fund partners get it wrong sometimes (like beating on mortgage backed securities). The only difference is when they get it so wrong they get fired. Would political pundits have a little more humility in making their predictions if they were actually held accountable for them (unlike Kristol on the Iraq war, Matthews on CNBC—what is up with that guy?—etc.)? Or is there some implicit tenure process involved in the media today where once you reach a certain level of recognition you can't be fired no matter how wrong you turn out to be?
Jeff Greenfield: If we fired everyone who got it wrong on the biggest screw-up ever—the 2000 election night fiasco(s)—there's be no MSM left. Oh, wait ... that's not exactly bad news in cyberworld. Maybe we should all be forced to post our past mistakes. (Lindsay will be elected President in 1972!)
Washington: Forget about the early polls; how could the exit polls in New Hampshire have been so wrong—but only on the Democratic side? Is the color line rearing its ugly head yet again?
Jeff Greenfield: As you may have noticed, the race question is in Andrew Kohut's New York Times op-ed piece today. It's purely speculative—most folks think the so-called "Bradley effect" (after the 1982 governor's race in Caifornia when polls said Tom Bradley—the African American Los Angeles Mayor would win—is less of a factor now. Kohut suggests that lower income, less-educated voters in New Hampshire may have had issues with a black candidate—but they also may simply have been more willing to hang up on pollsters—and they'd be likely to be more Clinton-type voters without the race issue. The beer-drinker vs. wine-drinker split in that state is as old as Hart-Mondale, McCarthy-LBJ, Bradley-Gore, Tsongas-Clinton.
I think a simpler answer (remember Occam's Razor) is that Clinton's "moment" Monday night happened after pollsters had stopped polling—and with a sizable share of voters saying the could well change their minds, the polls simply didn't pick it up. But that's my speculation.
Washington: Why wasn't Bill Richardson able to create more momentum around himself? He is the most qualified of all the Democratic candidates but he never seemed to get the attention as Clinton, Obama and Edwards.
washingtonpost.com: Richardson Dropping Presidential Bid(AP, Jan. 10)
Jeff Greenfield: Good question: Richardson seemed like a strong candidate with an exceptional resume (and clever "job interview" ads). I followed him some in the spring for a Playboy interview and my sense was he was relying too much on personal charm—of which he has plenty—and not enough on a carefully thought-out, disciplined message.
Springfield, Va.: Bravo for coming here and facing the music a little bit. In Kurtz's column this morning, you seemed to take issue with the groupthink dynamic of the urban media communes in Georgetown and Midtown, saying it had a good deal to do with why the press was/has been so far off throughout the primary season in its handicapping. While it's true that McCain was in trouble last year, he clearly never was "dead" or "toast." From the perspective of many of us, the press is often quite guilty of overblowing a situation for dramatic effect, believing the hype it created, and then being stunned when things in the real world don't play out the way the press had scripted them in their own little imaginative world. Is there any serious chance that the press might take a step back from this level of irresponsibility and leave the handicapping to bookies who actually know what they're talking about?
washingtonpost.com: In Picking The Victors, Media Get Another Drubbing(Post, Dec. 10)
Jeff Greenfield: I'm not sure about bookies, but I play pretty close attention to the political futures market—the "wisdom of crowds" and all that. Let me offer a mild partial dissent on McCain coverage. When a top-tier presidential candidate (I can defend this characterization, but I hope I don't have to) reveals he is out of money and suffers a huge staff meltdown, that candidate is in trouble. It's the "He's toast! He's dead!" bloviation that's over the top. In an age of massive media overload, there is a Gresham's Law at work—bad conversation tends to drive out good conversation. For years, I've ended most of my on-camera stuff with my own version of "Carthage Must Be Destroyed" Mine is: "Could we let somebody vote?" And ye, on Slate, I wrote about the next stage of the campaign without fully noting that it was based on an assumption that the New Hampshire polls were right.
Anonymous: This election is all about post-Baby Boomers grabbing power—do you agree?
Jeff Greenfield is the senior political correspondent for CBS News.