We Expected More Elephants

NYT delivers

And today’s Elephant in the Room award goes to The New York Times’ Patrick Healy and Michael Cooper for the following:

Mrs. Clinton’s victory came after her advisers had lowered expectations with talk of missteps in strategy and concern about Mr. Obama’s momentum after his first-place finish in Iowa.

There are two problems with this sentence. First, it seems to me the sentence should read: “Mrs. Clinton’s victory came after polling had lowered expectations with data showing a seemingly insurmountable Obama lead.” Weren’t expectations for Clinton in New Hampshire — the press’s, the campaigns’, the voters’ — already pretty darn low due, largely, to what the polls were indicating? It’s strange that Healy and Cooper don’t mention at all the polls’ affect on expectations of Clinton — only what they seem to see as the Clinton campaign’s successful expectations-lowering efforts.

But if, as Healy and Cooper write, all this Clinton campaign “talk” about Clinton missteps and Obama momentum further “lowered expectations” for Clinton, then, Healy and Cooper should note, the press assisted in that process. Which is, essentially, the second problem with the sentence.

To state the obvious: reporters play a key role in setting expectations. Campaign advisers can’t just “lower expectations with talk” of anything — or raise expectations of a rival, for that matter — without the aide of the press corps. They do it, of course, by getting reporters to write up their version of What’s Expected, by appearing on cable news shows to talk up their expectations, and so on. And they want to lower expectations of their candidate, of course, in hopes that s/he will then surpass the low bar they have set for him/her which will then be perceived (by the press, by the public) as a victory.

While Clinton campaign advisers surely did “talk of missteps in strategy and concern about Mr. Obama’s momentum,” who else “talked of” these things — all on their own, beyond reporting on what the Clinton campaign itself was saying? The media. And that’s fine, to a point (rumors/reports of Clinton dropping out and of various advisers joining or jumping ship excepted). It’s reporters pretending they don’t play a role, don’t have an impact that isn’t fine — for one, as I wrote yesterday, because it lets them off the accountability hook.

How will reporters manage the expectations management game going forward? Given what we saw in 2004, consider our expectations managed.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.