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April 16, 2014

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Political journalism suffers from ‘groupthink’

The Nevada Legislature, as I wrote in an article for the Las Vegas Sun, would be a perfect laboratory for Irving Janis, the Yale psychologist who did extensive work on the psychological notion of “groupthink.”

Legislators and lobbyists, most of whom live in Las Vegas, fly up to Carson City every Monday morning. They talk only to one another, all day and then over cocktails and dinner at night.

In this cloistered environment, cocktail chatter becomes conventional wisdom.

So, much to my surprise, midway through the 2007 session, a slavish devotion to road-building emerged, even though the state’s schools and health care systems are just as bad off.

I came across the same kind of groupthink while covering the presidential race leading up to the Nevada caucus.

The vogue word in journalism for groupthink is “narrative.” A bunch of reporters and editors read one another’s dispatches, talk at events and on planes, and come to a rough consensus about where things stand and what’s important:

Barack Obama is viable. Obama is a weak debater and not “tough enough.” He has committed “missteps” on foreign policy. Hispanics won’t vote for a black man. Yes, they will. Jeremiah Wright has dealt the Obama campaign a game-changing crisis. Obama parried with the most significant speech on race since Martin Luther King Jr.

Hillary Clinton isn’t electable. Clinton is unflappable and unstoppable. Clinton isn’t connecting with Iowa voters. Clinton is finished. Clinton found her voice. Clinton is unstoppable. Clinton is finished. Clinton may win it.

Here’s how I got caught up in this nonsense, and what I learned from it:

After Nevada was named an early caucus state, I started to analyze the roles various institutions would play in the race.

The Culinary Union Local 226, which represents 60,000 hotel workers on the Las Vegas Strip, is the biggest and most powerful union in the state. The union is unified, politically active and feared.

Before long, groupthink, or a narrative, came to dominate the discussion: Culinary as kingmaker.

There were caveats, more so at the beginning of the campaign, about Culinary’s mixed record of success in statewide races, and whether its members, many of whom are Latino, would show up or were even registered voters.

There was one caveat I rarely, if ever, reported: the chance that union members would split their support rather than hang together.

I wasn’t the only one to latch onto the narrative. Many colleagues, both local and national, also bought in.

There were factors that exacerbated our coming error. Culinary had beaten casino management in recent contract negotiations, adding to its perceived strength. The union’s political director was regarded as smart, talented and capable of delivering the Nevada caucus. She never dissuaded reporters from believing that would happen.

Something else about the Culinary: Its leaders are risk-averse and rarely back losers. So, not surprisingly, they didn’t endorse early. In fact they waited. And waited. Until, finally, they said they’d make a decision after the Iowa caucuses.

Sure, I wondered — as did my colleague Mike Mishak, who wrote a story that questioned delaying the endorsement so close to caucus day — whether the union could simply endorse a candidate, flip a switch and win.

Still, we assumed the union, with its vaunted field operation and mythic unity, would hang together for whomever it endorsed.

So after New Hampshire, when Culinary finally endorsed Obama, I wrote this paragraph on a plane back to Nevada:

In a caucus, supporters of a candidate literally stand together on one side of the room, demonstrating to everyone who is supporting whom. Many Strip shift workers, Culinary workers, will be voting at so-called “at-large” caucus sites on the Strip. This means Culinary members, for whom unity is a creed, will be able to enforce discipline. Clinton can no longer expect to win many delegates at those at-large sites.

I look at that paragraph today and wince. On caucus day, Clinton won a majority of delegates at seven of the nine at-large sites.

That happened because as Culinary dithered, Clinton aides were organizing its members. Sure, a Clinton aide told me the campaign was not organizing support among union members, but I should have realized the source was lying — or at least that Clinton appealed to Culinary members, no matter what union bosses said.

I should have realized the weakness of my analysis regarding what the election would turn on. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who was wrong. A bunch of other reporters had bought into the same narrative.

Yet in some respects, we in the local press are lucky, living and working outside the insular Beltway world. There, political narrative is what caffeine is to a coffee shop — practically its reason for being.

When we thought for ourselves, out in the hinterlands, we did some quality work. For instance, in spring 2007, when the D.C. and New York media began their inevitable pushback on Obama with a raft of stories about his being all fluff and no substance, we examined this narrative and reported on a new element: blogger pushback to the pushback.

When candidates came to town, we tried to introduce them to Nevadans without being heavy-handed, giving even Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich — long discounted by the national media — a fair hearing that avoided the easy mock.

But I still can’t get over my mistaken assumption that Culinary was kingmaker.

Here’s the important question: How do we avoid false narratives and get at more salient and fundamental issues?

Or more plainly: What should we political reporters be doing with our time? When is our supposed “analysis” simply a rehashing of the campaign machinery’s narrative?

I’m pretty sure we do too much shorthand, guesswork “analysis,” which often amounts merely to repeating groupthink we’ve read or heard elsewhere.

We ought to be analyzing what the candidates propose and whether they possess the skills and character traits to get it done.

The rest should be left to voters. It’s their groupthink that matters.

The preceding commentary originally appeared on Poynter Online at www.poynter.org.

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