The Insta-news cycle

Resnik BIDEN

by Ben Resnik

30–63. Such was the breakdown of responses to Politico’s poll question “Who do you think won the vice presidential debate?” 30 percent said Republican Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney’s running mate, while 63 percent sided with incumbent Vice President and firebrand Joe Biden. Another six percent called it a tie.

Last Thursday’s vice presidential debate was a vicious and heated one with no obvious inflection points (save perhaps for Biden calling one of Ryan’s statements “a bunch of malarkey”). Nonetheless, nearly two-thirds of Politico’s readership decided that the Democrat had carried the night. The poll was not scientific, but Politico is a relentlessly bipartisan news source with a demonstrably bipartisan readership, and, what’s more, almost 25,000 people had responded, pointing to at least some level of legitimacy in the result. It was clear — Vice President Biden had won the debate. This was backed up with a 50–31 split in Biden’s favor (with 19 percent saying it was a tie) on CBS.

And yet, the very next day, with ever more respondents adding their opinions to the poll, Politico ran a headline story calling the debate a draw. What’s more, media news outlets conformed to this opinion with a surprising amount of consistency — from CNN (who, in fairness, had a 48-44 split in their own insta-poll response) to the Economist to CNBC, every TV station, blog, and publication of any repute was immediately in agreement about what a well-fought tie the debate had turned out to be.

The term “media narrative” has been used this campaign cycle by whichever political party is not presently in the lead. It is, essentially, the insinuation that the mainstream media has a conspiratorial, unified desire to pull the race in one direction or the other. It has been referenced most frequently this time around by the conservative pundit class and is usually accompanied by the reassurance that they are telling you the real story, so tune in.

We’ve already seen quite clearly the fallout of intentionally biased media, but this is a completely different animal — this is the implication that various media execs get together to plan the Next Great Lie to the American people. This is, of course, a fallacy. Competing media outlets are just that — competing — and profits always supersede politics. But that very competition has spawned the sort of unified media narrative that really does exist.

None of the polls I have referenced have been scientific; that is, none have been subjected to the academic rigors of finding an unbiased sample, asked questions designed not to lead, or followed up with detailed analysis. Those kinds of polls are done by respected firms like Gallup and Rasmussen Reports, and they take days to come together. Instead, these are gut-check, one-click snapshots of self-selecting samples that, while timely and interesting, are not any more informative than scrolling through one’s Facebook news feed immediately after a debate.

The thing is, though, that in the flurry of competition by news outlets to say something as quickly as possible, these insta-polls are reported as news, and end up influencing the discourse that influences the people participating in the actually scientific polls. In that way, the insta-polls inherit an air of legitimacy that belies their complete lack of rigor or thought — half the time, anyway.

The other half of the time, those same news outlets ignore the results entirely because it doesn’t seem right. In that circumstance, news sources fear being panned for making an overly hasty call, like CNN and Fox did when they erroneously reported that the Supreme Court had struck down Obamacare while failing to actually read the ruling. News outlets are terrified of failing to read the signs of the public discourse – a fear that leads them to make herd-like and un-journalistic pronouncements.

This leads us back to the vice presidential debate. With polling firms only starting to analytically unpack the debate’s result, Politico published an article with the “verdict” of a draw, ignoring its own insta-poll with a 33-point lead in Biden’s favor. And yet, a few weeks prior they (and everyone else, for that matter) unequivocally declared Mitt Romney the winner of the first presidential debate in conformity with a 29-point insta-poll lead in the Republican’s favor. That was the verdict, that was the narrative, and that was the end of the discussion.

None of this is to say that Politico (or CNN, or CNBC, or any other news outlet that employs insta-polls) is wanting in institutional legitimacy as a result of those insta-polls’ use. It is merely to point out a trend, a flaw in an already crack-ridden presidential media environment where every shred of information is commoditized and spun. There are no facts but the facts, and while there is no unifying conspiracy, news outlets of every stripe are remarkably consistent at jumping to conclusions.


photo of Vice President Joe Biden by Marc Nozell