A Viewer’s Guide to Iowa Caucus Coverage

"The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years."

3 Jan 2012 6:53 pm 10 Comments

I have been observing and commenting on campaign coverage for 24 years, ever since I read Joan Didion’s world-beating essay, Insider Baseball, which I recommend to you as preparation for tonight’s coverage of the Iowa Caucuses.

Here I want to offer you two different ways of thinking about what campaign coverage is. The distinction I unfold in this post will, I hope, prove useful as you take in the Caucus chatter tonight. And do keep in mind that no delegates for the Republican nomination are at stake. That’s right! The correct number is zero: “The Iowa caucuses will award no delegates to any candidate.”

So here is my distinction: The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a professional tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years. The tribe I have in mind is this one:

At the zoo that is the Iowa Caucus, the lobby bar in the downtown Des Moines Marriott is like a communal watering hole where roving packs of reporters, political hacks, and even candidates assemble nightly to drain drinks and exchange political gossip. New arrivals can cause heads to turn, like when Jill Abramson and Maureen Dowd entered the bar around 7:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve before hosting a dinner for New York Times staffers. A few moments later, Mitt Romney sparked chatter when he hustled by the front desk pulling his own roller bag, looking like the Bain consultant road warrior he once was.

Last night, it was Buzzfeed’s new editor-in-chief Ben Smith who occupied the room’s attention as he mingled through the lobby, talking with Esquire writer Charlie Pierce and Drudge’s deputy Charlie Hurt, among others…

The Caucuses are primarily about that. But they’re presented as opening day in a season that belongs to the voters.

Let’s get right to my distinction. It is between a “transmission” and a “ritual” model of news and communication. My guide in these matters is the media scholar James W. Carey, who died in 2006. He was our greatest journalism professor ever, though few of his countrymen know anything about him.

In his most famous essay, “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” Carey identifies “two alternative conceptions of communication” that have influenced American thought since the term entered our discourse in the nineteenth century. One he calls a “transmission view,” so common as to almost be common sense. Here, communication means the delivery of “messages” or “news” across distance. Typically, the messages are of an informational sort, and they are assumed to be important for making decisions (like whom to vote for) or controlling action. At the “deepest roots of our thinking,” Carey observes, “we picture the act of communication as the transmittal of information across space.” Like, say… from Iowa to your living room.

In contrast to the transmission metaphor stands the “ritual” view.

Here, communication is linked to terms such as “sharing,””participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and the “possession of a common faith.” This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms “commonness,” “communion,””community,” and “communication.”

A ritual view directs our attention not to the movement of messages in space but to the “maintenance of society in time;” not to “the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.” Perhaps the simplest example of a ritual act of communication is a church sermon, which typically serves not to “send a message” or convey fresh facts, but to draw the congregation together in the celebration and contemplation of a shared faith, which is meant to endure.

My suggestion is that it would be more profitable to treat the Iowa Caucuses as a “ritual,” rather than an informational or news event. There may be a modicum of information emerging from the caucuses themselves; they may tell us something–a little bit–about the relative standing of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann. But caucus coverage is more profitably viewed as a campaign ritual, in which the tribe of political reporters (like Chuck Todd or Mark Halperin) and pundits (an E.J. Dionne or a David Brooks) and pollsters (like, say, Frank Luntz) and operatives (or former operatives like James Carville or Donna Brazille) claim interpretive rights over the election of 2012.

Every four years they gather in Iowa to affirm that their way of seeing is the way to see a presidential campaign. They say they are bringing you news of what happened in Iowa. But what they’re really doing is maintaining their little society of insiders across yet another election cycle. That is what rituals do. They preserve community over time. About these insiders Joan Didion observed…

They tend to speak a language common in Washington but not specifically shared by the rest of us. They talk about “programs,” and “policy,” and how to “implement” them or it, about “trade-offs” and constituencies and positioning the candidate and distancing the candidate, about the “story,” and how it will “play.” They speak of a candidate’s performance, by which they usually mean his skill at circumventing questions, not as citizens but as professional insiders, attuned to signals pitched beyond the range of normal hearing: “I hear he did all right this afternoon,” they were saying to one another in the press section of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on the evening Dan Quayle was or was not to be nominated for the vice-presidency. “I hear he did OK with Brinkley.” By the time the balloons fell that night the narrative had changed: “Quayle, zip,” the professionals were saying as they brushed the confetti off their laptops. These are people who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.

Didion continues:

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. “I didn’t realize you were a political junkie,” Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.

Then she goes in for the kill. “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” Yes! That is something else I want you to watch for tonight. That remoteness.

Important for my purposes is James Carey’s description of the news media in a transmission view, as compared to what it looks like under a ritual understanding. A transmission perspective sees the media as a vehicle for disseminating news and knowledge. It also leads us to ask about the “effects” of this act on audiences. We see news “as enlightening or obscuring reality, as changing or hardening attitudes, as breeding credibility or doubt.”

A ritual view treats news reading as a different sort of act, concerned not with the conveyance of facts but with our placement in an imaginative space– one that is interesting, dramatic, satisfying to the imagination. And so Carey writes:

What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus. A story on the monetary crisis salutes them as American patriots fighting those ancient enemies Germany and Japan; a story on the meeting of the women’s political caucus casts them into the liberation movement as supporter or opponent; a tale of violence on the campus evokes their class antagonisms and resentments. The model here is not that of information acquisition, though such acquisition occurs, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces as an observer at a play.

Carey‘s point in “A Cultural Approach to Communication” is not that the transmission view is “wrong,” but that it cannot illuminate much of what is happening when we encounter the news. A feature on the candidate’s media adviser invites us behind the scenes, where appearances are contrived for an unwitting audience from whom we are now separated by our superior knowledge of the mechanics of manipulation. A television report puts us inside the cockpit of a fighter jet, zeroing in on an enemy target with high-tech precision. We might call this the “positioning effect.” It occurs regardless of whether the journalist-as-author takes a position or produces a neutral, “objective” account. Something else I want you to watch for tonight. How are we–the users, the viewers–being positioned by the reporting and commentary we are given?

If positioning is part of what journalists do, then it is reasonable to ask how they should do it. But this is only one in a class of novel questions illuminated by Carey’s ritual view. As soon as journalists are no longer seen as information providers, they emerge in a variety of more interesting and ambiguous guises: as dramatists, model makers, timekeepers, scene-setters, script-writers. They build public stages, people them with actors, and frame the action in a certain way. But none of these acts appear in their job description.

Finally, there is the weird fact that journalists are reporting on an event they have largely created, but the rules they operate under prevent them from fully acknowledging this fact. As Brendan Nyhan observes in CJR:

The “meaning” of the caucus results is not always clear. These rough edges are typically sanded away in post-Iowa reporting and commentary, however, which tends to emphasize the order of the finish (even when the margins between candidates are small) as well as unexpectedly weak or strong results. Media outlets then shift energy and resources toward candidates who performed well under the prevailing interpretation, while ignoring or providing negative coverage of those who were believed to have done poorly. These shifts in coverage, which themselves become part of the information party leaders are responding to, can help create massive post-Iowa swings in a candidate’s chances.

The result is a refraction effect in which journalists help make Iowa influential and then report on its “effects” without acknowledging their role in the process or the often arbitrary nature of the distinctions that are made among the candidates.

But that’s part of the ritual: Yeah, we created this thing but we bring it to you as if it would happen without us.


gregorylent says:

amazing there remains even a shred of respect for journalism.

But it’s also a ritual for the political party, one that has newsworthy ramifications. For example, because of the results, Michele Bachmann is likely quitting her campaign as I type this. Rick Perry is reportedly out the door, too. People who participated in the voting had interesting things to say about why they voted the way they did — for instance, of the 13 percent of voters for whom abortion was their number-one issue, 58 percent voted for Rick Santorum. This is newsworthy information that has impact on the upcoming race (i.e., by telling us that social conservatives are coalescing around this particular guy instead of that.)

Not disagreeing with your overall take, just pointing out that it is not *only* an empty insiders’ ritual. Now major-party political conventions, on the other hand….

I tried to allow for this, Matt, by saying that a modicum of real information comes forward because the Caucuses are held. That’s as far as I will go. But I don’t disagree with your observation.

I think Matt makes an important point. The candidates, their PACS and the political parties spend tens of millions of dollars on Iowa. This is part of what makes the Iowa caucus so “real” and, in the minds of the journalists who show up there, worthy of coverage.

Perhaps it’s a chicken-and-egg problem — who makes Iowa “real” — the journalists or the political actors? I think Jay probably gives too much credit and power to the “little society” of political reporters.

The candidates and political parties must also find this Iowa / New Hampshire arrangement beneficial for their own reasons and purposes. I can think of lots of reasons why they like it this way, not the least of which is simply inertia. It’s the way we’ve been doing it for a long time.

One of the things that struck me as most remarkable about last night’s caucus was just how few people participated in it. All of these tens of millions of dollars, months of campaigning and immeasurable quantities of media attention were lavished upon a political ritual participated in by a mere 120,000 extraordinarily homogenous and non-representative members of the greater American population (Iowa Republican caucuas participants are 99% white according to exit polls).

To get some perspective on just how tiny these Iowa caucuses are — the 30,000 votes that Mitt Romney received would probably be just enough for him to win a hotly contested Democratic primary election for Manhattan Civil Court judge.

Certainly there is an interplay between political actors and journalists that has become normalized, so that it doesn’t seem like a press creation any longer but just “the way American politics works.”

But would those tens of millions of dollars and thousands of staffers be there if the press scrum wasn’t? I doubt it.

The Iowa caucus ritual is 40 years old, or 10 presidential election cycles, or two generations of politicians, pundits, and press. Most importantly, it started in the age of modern mass media.

History of the Iowa Caucus

The 1972 decision by the Iowa Democratic Party to move its caucus date forward had an immediate, albeit modest impact on the presidential nominating process. Iowa’s new first-in-the-nation status gained the attention of presidential candidates and reporters. Further changes in state caucus procedures by the Democrats in 1972 and 1976 — and by the Republicans in 1976 and 1980 — made possible the creation of a national event by instituting a common date for the meetings and providing “results” from the process. This process centers around precinct caucuses, which select delegates to the county conventions. Before 1972, neither party’s procedures were designed to determine winners and losers at the first stage of the multistage Iowa caucus and convention system. The procedural changes created a formal system to determine and report the presidential preferences of caucus participants.

Andrew Klimas says:

Didion’s essay is entitled “Insider Baseball” not “Inside Baseball,” according to the link provided.

Fixed. Thanks.

Watching a rebroadcast of PBS newshour compelled me to visit this site -I couldn’t take the interminable horse race minutae on offer. Grateful to read about this ritual thing -helps me to understand this outlandish corporate media puppet theatre.

Jim Boylan says:

Thanks, Jay, for invoking our dear old friend Jim Carey, still missed.