Horse race journalism has a bad reputation among press critics. The
NYU professor Jay Rosen, in a recent talk on how political coverage is “broken,” included horse race coverage in his list of media sins. Search this website, and you’ll find any number of columns decrying the campaign press corps’s horse race mentality. I’ve written them myself. The very phrase is loaded; a quick way to decry campaign journalism that doesn’t meet the critic’s standard is to label it “horse race coverage.”

These complaints have merit. Much horse race journalism—defined here as reporting on the state of competition between rival candidates for elected office—is bad, and bad in revealing ways.

If such critiques don’t allow space for good horse race journalism, though, they risk becoming overbroad and incomplete. A meaningful answer to the question “who’s winning?” is, after all, one of the things that many users of political journalism want. But more important, it’s information that—under certain circumstances—can empower democratic participation.

I’ll focus here on Rosen’s analysis, because while he offers an astute critique, I’m not sure how much room it leaves for good horse race coverage. In his recent talk, Rosen discussed what he calls the “production of innocence,” a reporting stance designed to signal the neutrality of the press. “He said, she said” journalism is one product of this approach, he said:

But so is horse race journalism, in which the master narrative for covering an election is: who’s ahead? Journalists will tend to favor descriptions of political life that are a.) true, in that verifiable facts support the story; and b.) convenient for the continuous production of their own innocence.

One of the great attractions to horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Innocence is bliss.

It’s always useful to think about the psychic rewards people get from performing their work in a certain way, and, whether or not you agree that reporters’ self-conscious neutrality is a bad thing, Rosen’s speculation here is plausible. He has also identified a good target: the linked example of horse race journalism, one of those “what to watch for” pieces designed to teach readers how to feel like insiders, is inessential. If you’re a politics junkie, you won’t learn anything new; if not, it’s probably unintelligible.

So far, so good. But now consider this 2008 Salon essay, written shortly after Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire Democratic primary, in the process upending several days of media narrative-construction that had presumed a Barack Obama win. Rosen advances the same “innocence” argument, but here elaborates more fully on the problem he sees with the “who’s ahead?” frame (emphasis added):

The current generation of political reporters has based its bid for election-year authority on its horse race and handicapping skills. But reporters actually have no such skills. Think: what does a Howard Fineman (Newsweek, MSNBC) know about politics in America? I mean, what would you logically turn to him for? It’s got to be: Who’s ahead, what’s the strategy, and how are the insiders sizing up the contest? That’s supposedly his expertise, if he has any expertise; and if he doesn’t have any expertise, then what is he doing on my television screen, night after night, talking about politics?

Even if Fineman and company had it, the ability to handicap the race is a pretty bogus skill set. Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you? Why do we need people who know how this is going to play out in South Carolina when we can just wait for the voters to play it out themselves?

There’s potential for ambiguity here about just what “horse race” journalism is, and what is being criticized. But Rosen is correct that there’s little point, other than filling air time and column inches, in trying to “handicap” the outcome of a tightly contested election two days before the vote. Fineman (and just about everyone else) was wrong, and so he (and just about everyone else) was embarrassed. But had he been right, where does the benefit accrue, besides to his own reputation?

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.