Beware the Jab-erwock

A Fight Night extravaganza! A metaphorical one, at least!

Pity the pundits. Besides being charged with providing their audiences with highly valuable analysis about the major political events of the day, they’re also charged with making that highly valuable analysis, you know, entertaining. Which is perhaps why those pundits and assorted other first-draft historians often resort to the same tired metaphors to describe political events. Political strategy is a chess game! The campaign is a horse race! The election is a card game! Whee!

So what was the media’s Hackneyed Metaphor of Choice for Friday night’s debate? See if you can guess:

- “There were no knockout blows in the first presidential debate of the fall.” (David Broder, The Washington Post)

- “We’re left waiting for a knockout debate. On to Palin-Biden.” (Maureen Dowd, The New York Times)

- “There was no knockout, and maybe no knockdown, but McCain was on the offensive throughout.” (Bill Kristol, punditing on Fox News)

- “On foreign policy it all seemed a little clearer, although I should say Mr McCain won on points, without delivering anything remotely approaching a knockout blow.” (Kevin Connolly for BBC News)

- “Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama landed some punches Friday night, but neither delivered a knockout blow in the first presidential debate featuring the two party nominees.” (CNN)

- “The Friday night fight between John McCain and Barack Obama didn’t change the dynamic of the race. No knockout punches, no embarrassing moments and no dominant performer.” (Gromer Jeffers, Dallas Morning News)

- In a piece headlined “McCain fails to land knock-out blow”: “John McCain delivered the punchiest lines and finished the debate on the offensive. Barack Obama was polished and, yes, presidential throughout and absorbed his opponent’s jabs without serious damage.” (Andrew Ward, Financial Times)

- “CNN is reporting that poll it conducted after Friday night’s debate indicates that Barack Obama came out as the winner over John McCain, but on points. No knockout recorded.” (James Oliphant, Chicago Tribune)

And then there’s this exchange on Hardball with Chris Matthews directly after the debate:

MATTHEWS: You know, Pat, you and Gene, I remember the boxing days—just to go for stylistic—I thought we saw Archie Moore out there tonight in the form of John McCain, the Mongoose. He’s down there, crouched down, grumpy, angry and every once in a while he throws a jab up there at the guy and keeps his head down. I don’t know if the other guy was Marciano or not, I didn’t see him land any bee stings, either. Can one guy float like a butterfly and the other guy be the Mongoose and give us a fighting fight?

PAT BUCHANAN: I think it was Joe Frazier fighting Muhammad Ali. Remember “Smoking Joe”? He kept crowding him and getting in. Muhammad Ali was jabbing him and jabbing him and Frazier would get in close and hooking him with the left and hooking him and hooking him. Frazier won one of those three fights.

MATTHEWS: He looked like crap afterwards. He won the fight but his face looked like the face lost.

BUCHANAN: That’s right.

Sheesh. It’s ironic that a metaphor designed to, you know, literally punch things up can actually render a description more bland by the sheer gravitational pull of its own triteness. Cliches, after all, don’t generally burnish descriptions; they most often dull them. Given that, it’s remarkable how devoted the press and the pundits were to the tired debate-as-boxing-match trope—particularly since there were, in the final analysis, few jabs or punches or knockout blows actually thrown on Friday night. For a debate whose buildup was so dramatic—would McCain debate? would he not? ooh, what excitement!—most agree that Fight Night itself was exceedingly dull.

So it requires a special brand of pundocratic audacity to use the Fight Night metaphor to describe an event that had, in the end, so little punch. And it takes particular gumption to use an inappropriate metaphor simply because it’s expected or safe or exciting…regardless of how well the description suits the reality. The overall takeaway of the Fight Night descriptions isn’t just about the event itself, but about the press formulating those descriptions: It’s not just there was really no fight, but it’s also our predetermined metaphor didn’t bear out in reality, but we’re going to stick with it anyway, even if just to negate it. Because we’re just that stubborn. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert: Events may change; the cliches we use to describe them, apparently, never will.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.