Dear MSNBC: Keep the "For Sale" Sign Off Your Pundits

Television pundits have a self-serving addiction to seeing elections through a lens of broadcast advertising, polling and media-friendly news clips.
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This exchange between Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann the other night was troubling:

MATTHEWS: I noticed that we're picking up some advertising from the various candidates here on MS. I've noticed some of the ads running on our network. And I think the more they go nationwide, the more they are going to look to the politically-conscious networks like this one where people who follow politics watch, especially around shows like yourself's (ph) and mine.

And I think they are going to be looking to our programs to advertise. I think it is going to be a very lucrative time for some people we work with and work for.

OLBERMANN: Well, that's good for us. There's a new story that's developing.

Except the real story is that campaigns are finding their money is more effectively spent on field organizing than on television advertising these days. Television pundits have a self-serving addiction to seeing elections through a lens of broadcast advertising, polling and media-friendly news clips, and they mostly don't talk about field because a) it threatens to take money out of the parent company corporate pocket, and b) they don't understand it.

But the big field story of 2008 is not about the horse race. In the 2008 and 2004 presidential primary cycles, the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire--joined by Nevada and South Carolina this year--have functioned as training grounds for a new generation of field organizers and incubators of new field techniques and technologies. The dramatic surge in early resources available to campaigns has put large staffs on the ground up to one year before voting day. These organizing hothouses--especially on the Democratic side--are producing a new generation of activists who are as disciplined and skilled as they are passionate.

Most pundits probably don't know that Barack Obama started out as an organizer, and his victory in South Carolina may have had as much to do with his campaign's superb ground game and GOTV efforts as anything Bill Clinton said. Likewise, Hillary's New Hampshire field organization was by all accounts excellent. But that just does not have the built-in drama of Hillary choking up, and gets discussed on TV almost not at all.

Matthews and others may be flogging TV advertising as the way to go, but let's look at the reality of, say, California. Horse race enthusiasts are excited because the latest Rasmussen poll has Obama pulling within three points of Hillary Clinton in California. Where will the votes of Edwards supporters fall? Very dramatic stuff. Could go down to the wire, right?

Except that half of the Democrats registered to vote in California will do so by "absentee ballot, and voting started on January 7. And this, unsurprisingly, is in larage part due to the efforts of the...wait for it...highly competitive, extremely organized field campaigns of the candidates. And since many people already cast their ballots prior to John Edwards dropping out of the race, who his votes would have gone to is a moot point to them.

And though it's still an apples and oranges affair, the most accurate point of comparison for what might happen in California is what happened with absentee ballots in the closed primary of a state that talking heads kept telling us was not even worth talking about...Florida.

So how much is last-minute television advertising going to matter in a state like California? Some, but probably a whole lot less than you're going to hear about from the people who stand to benefit from it. And having newscasters breaking the boundary between news and advertising to push the company product is both misleading and inappropriate.

Jane Hamsher blogs at

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