Stop the Winnowing Already!

It is way too early for simplistic framing, or for narrowing the presidential field.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign announced Sunday that she hauled in a record-breaking $26 million for the first quarter of 2007, a massive sum that earned her props among the chattering class in “the first true challenge” of the ‘08 contest, the “invisible” or “money primary.”

The unveiling of Hillary’s numbers, followed by those of John Edwards ($14 million) and several other Democrats, “amounted to the opening of an elaborate poker game,” said the New York Times, reading the tea leaves with iffy precision: “Others may have used her announcement to distract attention from their own relatively low numbers. Mr. Obama’s decision to wait may be a signal that his campaign hopes to make a splash of its own with an unexpectedly rich quarter.”

For the press, the money totals provided the first concrete opportunity to start handicapping the race — and, in so doing, some articles backwardly expressed the curious, altogether premature expectation that Clinton could have knocked out Democratic rivals with this round of fundraising.

While Clinton cemented her status as frontrunner, according to the Politico, “the New York senator did not appear to open the sort of gap between herself and leading rivals that would presage the lopsided primary contest some expected as recently as late last year. And it seemed unlikely that her first-quarter numbers would knock out any of her main competitors.”

The piece carried the obvious headline “Clinton’s Fundraising Unlikely To Deter Main Rivals,” as if, say, Edwards or Bill Richardson was going to wake up Sunday, see Clinton’s numbers, and throw in the towel — nearly ten months before the Iowa caucus.

The Times noted that “The early totals also suggest that none of the Democrats will enjoy the kind of commanding financial edge that George W. Bush carried into the 2000 Republican primary.” Is that desirable? Is that a simpler storyline? And Bloomberg News ran the early headline “Clinton Raises Record $26 Million, Doesn’t Get ‘Knockout Blow.’” How disappointing. (Quickly showing the false hypothetical of its headline, Bloomberg’s lede claimed that Clinton shattered party records “while only just meeting the expectations she’s created as a prodigious fundraiser.”)

These pieces carried more than a whiff of regret, as though the press would have liked the chance to do some “knocking out” itself. The better to get to that black and white horserace narrative and thereby avoid those messy policy stories.

In another case of journalistic presumptions, Candy Crowley dismissed the three leading Republican candidates as unfit for the conservative base on CNN last week: “Giuliani, off the reservation on social issues. McCain, unpredictable. Romney, flip-flops.”

It is way too early for that kind of simplistic framing, or for narrowing the field. In fact, as Time’s Karen Tumulty wrote in a recent blog post, “the media seem to be getting ahead of the voters” already: “What’s the hurry, ten months before the first caucus, to winnow the field to a few candidates deemed viable — say, three at most from each party?” While Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Richardson “are getting all but ignored by the national media,” Tumulty wrote, celebrity has defined the leading candidates in the press narrative, while “actual issues” have of course been shortchanged.

2008 is supposed to be the most “wide open” presidential race Americans have seen in eighty years. This election is of crucial importance — the winner will have to deal with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, massive environmental issues, a staggering deficit, etc. But the country will only get the kind of national debate it desperately needs if the political press resists the time-honored temptation to put the horserace above all else. Cast the media spotlight to the wider field of candidates and let them duke it out for a while. That just might give journalists on the campaign trail better stories, too.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.