WALTER HAMILTON. Corruption by Prediction

Aug 3, 2016


It is a modern-day impatience: we want to eat dessert first. In election campaigns, therefore, we seek to ‘taste’ the result through opinion polls, vox pops, electoral maps (with winners already allocated), predictive analogies or psephological cephalopods. So it was during the recent Australian elections; so it is again as Americans wait (redundantly?) for the real polls to open in November.

Analysis of the takeout from the Republican and Democratic Party conventions is a case in point. How many people watched Trump’s acceptance speech versus Clinton’s? How many television ratings points did each of the party spectaculars garner? Is President Obama’s approval rating more predictive than other poll numbers such as what percentage of Americans feel the country is headed in the right direction? Is Trump’s off-the cuff, blustering style in touch with the electorate’s mood or a big turnoff? Are Clinton’s decades of public service a recommendation or a liability? Depending on whose opinion you read or which news network you watch, the answer to any one of these (or any number of other questions) supposedly holds the key to the outcome. Every day between now and 8 November, we can expect to be told who is winning and, in the view of some pundits, who has already won. We want the result now, damn the wait!

History is the science of understanding how an outcome was reached. But history is old hat when outcomes are really there to be foretold; just as policy detail is anachronistic when solutions are ready-made by simply naming the problem. ‘Don’t you worry about that,’ Queensland Premier Jo Bjelke-Petersen used to say to reporters annoyingly wanting answers about the means to his predicted ends. I am reminded of Jo’s response whenever I hear Donald Trump’s ‘We’re all going to be rich again’ bromide.

The ‘prediction industry’, if I may call it that, is sometimes roughly informed by some knowledge of history, but more often it is preoccupied with the momentary impact of a misspoken word, a careless gesture, a leaked document (with the fact of its having been leaked precluding the need to be fully informed of its contents): the gaffe index of election campaigns. When candidates need to make hundreds of whistle-stop speeches crisscrossing a vast territory––whether the United States or Australia––repeated phrases, themes and ideas inevitably grow dull in the ears of the weary hosts of travelling media, who crave a pratfall to relieve the tedium.

For the same reason that attack ads work in election campaigns­­––it is easier to malign an opponent than articulate an alternative idea––even the so-called progressive media prefer to showcase extremists than parse and explain the subtler policy differences of centrist candidates. Public figures like Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer are held to a different standard: their ignorance is accepted as part of their novelty; their anti-mainstream views are given unequal time in news and current affairs programs just for the thrill of it.

Donald Trump began the year as one among a host of Republican candidates. Granted he had public recognition, mainly through his ‘reality TV’ appearances, but he had no support base within the party, no experience of governing, and no policy prescriptions. The ‘Mexican wall’ was one of his early gambits to cut his way out of the ruck; then came the ‘Muslim ban’. He ridiculed and mocked his opponents, and the American media across the board lapped it up. With presidential election campaigns starting earlier and earlier in the cycle, editors and producers looked ahead from January dreading the prospect of having to cover the political steeplechase. Trump did their work for them: a headline a day, a steady diet of outrageous sound bites or tweets to fill up the news cycle. Reality and ‘realty TV’ changed places.

Some commentators credit Trump with representing a new breed of anti-politician, who Americans disenchanted with ‘the system’ have been craving. To me, his methods seem as old as the hills. In the American context, Trump’s modern predecessors include Huey Long (1893-1935) of Louisiana, Joe McCarthy (1908-1957) of Wisconsin, and George Wallace (1919-1998) of Alabama. That none of these men made it to the White House should not be taken as indicative, since none managed to receive the endorsement of a major party, as Trump has done.

Trump’s best chance of getting to the White House rests not on his novelty, not on his simplistic remedies (walls, etc.), and not on his supposedly being representative of an angry American middleclass (his lifestyle and business activities make that obvious). His best chance is if the American media continue to want to serve dessert first; that is, if the media assume the role of predictor of history rather than its recorder. Predictors are by their very nature partisan: they have a stake in the result they predict. So criminal trials are not left up to jury verdicts; ‘legal experts’ preemptively call the result from the sidelines. Allegations against public figures are ventilated one-sidedly on television, in newspapers or the Internet regardless of whether they are proven or would ever warrant prosecution. Opinions outgun information; the reviews are in before the curtain goes up.

The trend in America’s news media (reflected in Australian mainstream media to a lesser extent but very much alive in the blogosphere) towards increasingly partisan coverage of events is intimately tied up with the ‘prediction industry’. Media outlets support their preferred outcomes by ignoring or downplaying events that don’t fit their cause. We have witnessed this recently, on both sides: the Fox news network gave scant coverage to Trump’s attack on the Muslim ‘Gold Star’ family; the New York Times ignored Clinton’s dishonest responses, during an interview on Fox, to new questions about her emails. The first duty of journalism––to inform––is being subverted. In this climate, judgements and principles must be infinitely flexible so they can be adapted to nullify new facts or perceptions: participants can categorically predict one outcome today and the opposite outcome a week later without being called to account. It’s a game in which audiences are meant to know how to brush off hyperbole and misrepresentation. When Donald Trump said he hoped Russia could find Clinton’s ‘missing’ emails he was, he later claimed, being ‘sarcastic’. Critics who thought otherwise, he mocked for being un-attuned to the game.

Trump can win the presidency on the back of a corrupted news media: corrupt as a tree is corrupt that flourishes without ever bearing fruit. Partisan Trump commentators predicting the ‘evils’ of a Clinton presidency and partisan Clinton commentators predicting the ‘evils’ of a Trump presidency do not cancel each other out. Since Trump is the candidate peddling the narrative of a ‘rigged system’, he wins when both his supporters and his detractors tell the electorate what outcome they are meant to deliver in November.

Journalists and analysts should get out of the ‘game’ and play their proper role as disinterested informers. They should also give much more attention to the ideas and policies (or lack of them) of the candidates and less to the gaffes and pratfalls that are so easily slotted into a preconceived, predicted construct. In a sound democracy, the dessert is eaten last––on voting day––or not at all.

Walter Hamilton is a former ABC foreign correspondent.


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