CNN Leads in Pointless Story Stakes, But Reuters Is Gaining Fast

So far this campaign season has been a major player in Campaign Desk’s ongoing count of vacuous stories pointlessly predicting unpredictable events, from the veepstakes all the way up through the winner in November. First, the CNN website ran a breathless story (regurgitating a press release from the news archive company LexisNexis) announcing that on July 21 John Kerry would choose Sen. John Edwards as his running mate. Then, just last week, actually called the election for Sen. Kerry, based on a look at the Dow Jones index. That article artfully negated itself with this assertion: “If history is any guide, Bush needs a summer rally — but history may not be such a great guide.”

It’s hard to run away from your own story faster than that. But today, Reuters enters the contest for Most Outrageous Assertion, Followed Immediately By Furious Backpedal with an article headlined, “Academics Use Formulas to Predict Bush Win.” The piece leads off, “Polls may show the presidential race in a dead heat, but for a small band of academics who use scientific formulas to predict elections President Bush is on his way to a sizable win.”

In the next paragraph the reader learns that these experts have “honed the art of electronic forecasting” utilizing “elaborate mathematical formulas” that account for the current state of the nation’s economy and political views. Thanks to all this, these experts can predict the outcome of the race — “with mixed results.”

“With mixed results”? Well, Reuters explains, in 1988 and 1996 the models accurately predicted victories for Bush I and for Clinton. (In 1996, one of the models was really close to hitting the exact outcome.) For unexplained reasons we aren’t told what happened in 1992, and in 2000 the experts put their money on Gore.

Thomas Holbrook, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and a backer of the scientific models, blames the 2000 error on — Al Gore himself! The models, Holbrook told Reuters, are created on the assumption that the candidates in question can run capable campaigns.

Enter Brooking Institute’s Thomas Mann (who’s in a tight race with University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato for the award of “most quoted pundit”). Mann dismisses both Holbrook’s argument and the whole idea of these models as so much tomfoolery. “There’s really less there than meets the eye,” he sniffs, saying, “I get the sense the forecasters will be going out of business soon.”

Even Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz, who is introduced as a forecast supporter, tells Reuters not to “bet the farm.” The forecasts, he says, are merely academic exercises.

Hey, Reuters — we have a new headline for your story:

“Elaborate Formula Leaves Uncertain Academics Fumbling in Dark”

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.