Chuck Todd, a reporter for NBC News and the host of NBC’s Meet The Press, appeared to imply on Twitter earlier today that reporters in politics are really no different than referees in sports. And that probably seems like a really great analogy if you’re someone who’s completely ignorant about reporters, politics, referees, and sports. If you happen to be an individual who knows a little something about any of those topics, then the inanity of Chuck Todd’s equivalence is readily apparent.
In sports and politics, when athletes/candidates are complaining about the refs, it usually means they are losing. And it is NEVER becoming
Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) July 1, 2015
That declaration from Chuck Todd raises so many questions. Questions like, “You’re not really that dumb are you?” and “What brand of paint did you just huff off camera?”
The implication from Todd is that he and his reporter friends are just independent arbiters of the daily goings-on of politics. They have no skin in the game. They’re irrefutable experts on the rules. They’re highly qualified. They don’t care who wins or loses, just so long as the rules are followed.
The big problem is that the only people who believe these assumptions about Chuck Todd and his reporter friends are Chuck Todd and his reporter friends.
The thing about sports and politics is that there’s really not all that much in common between sports and politics. People who are familiar with sports and politics understand this.
In sports, there are defined, discrete sets of rules that apply to both teams or competing players. Everyone knows precisely what those rules are. There is often a scoreboard that keeps track of how much time is left, how many fouls the teams have committed, and how many points, runs, goals, etc. have been scored by either team. It is the job of the referee to determine that the rules are followed and applied evenly and fairly to everyone competing. Those referees are always appointed by the organization overseeing the competition, and only after they’ve completed extensive training in the rules and demonstrated their qualifications and abilities to the satisfaction of their employers who oversee these athletic competitions.
Now let’s look at how political campaigns and elections work. For starters, they’re not run by media organizations, so it’s unclear how, exactly, media organizations would get to fill the role of officially sanctioned referees. As far as rules for candidates are concerned, the only formal ones are in the areas of campaign organization, fundraising, and expenditures. In federal elections, the Federal Election Commission generally conducts oversight in these areas to make sure everyone is following the rules.
There are zero formal rules when it comes to pretty much every other aspect of a campaign. There are no rules about how many ads you can run, how many debates you must agree to, when it’s okay to go negative, how often you have to make yourself available to voters and the media, when it’s okay to dodge a question, what color tie you should wear, which tax policy is best, how many jobs you’re supposed to say you can create, what your budget should look like, which states or cities you should visit, and so on.
In political campaigns, there’s just one scoreboard: the one that shows the tally of voters after they’ve all been counted. In this area you also have some formal rules and elected or appointed judges to ensure that they’ve been followed, but for the most part, the referees who determine what gets posted on the scoreboard are the actual voters.
When you compare the two areas of sports and politics, you quickly see that they don’t have much in common at all. There is one area, though, in which they’re very similar, but the similarity is not one that Chuck Todd and his campaign reporter friends are going to like. Sports and politics are similar in that there is zero formal adjudicatory role given to media organizations and their employees. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
Sports franchises and organizations do not ask Jim Rome to call balls and strikes. Tony Kornheiser has never been invited to formally review a replay to see if that receiver actually made the catch. Marv Albert’s opinion on whether that guy was traveling or not is completely irrelevant to what happens on the floor.
As far as media coverage is concerned, the real difference between sports reporters and high profile political reporters is that the sports reporters have enough self-awareness to know that they’re not actually part of the competition. They know it’s not their job to run down on the field and chew out the actual referees and demand that they change the calls. They know that the audience watches the game because they want to watch the players, not the commentators. Sure, sports commentators and radio hosts will yell and complain and carry on when a bad call is made, but they at least understand that their role is one of observation, not official adjudication.
In politics, once you get beyond the narrow legal areas where there are very clear rules and very clear authorities who can judge compliance or non-compliance, the real referees are voters. Not reporters. Not candidates. Not judges. The real referees, the individuals tasked with determining what gets put on the scoreboard, are voters. It is, after all, their votes that determine the winner at the end of the contest.
And that fact is exactly why Chuck Todd so desperately wants to be viewed as a referee, rather than an observer who just happens to have a camera in front of him and a media operation behind him. He wants you to think he’s the one calling balls and strikes. He wants you to think he’s the expert on the rules. He wants to be the one to tell you what’s out of bounds and what isn’t. And the reason he wants that is because he, like so many other reporters (he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only political reporter to have significant ties to the Democratic Party), has skin in the game.
Todd worked for the presidential campaign of former Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. His wife is a long-time Democratic campaign consultant. They very clearly have skin in the game. Major League Baseball would never hire a George Steinbrenner staffer to stand behind the plate for a Yankees game against the Red Sox. It would be absurd to suggest that an arrangement like that would be appropriate. Fans would be outraged. But Todd would have you believe that this would not just be totally kosher, but totally normal.
In the interest of full disclosure, I also have a political background. I was a congressional staffer for several Republicans. I worked on a Republican presidential campaign. There are two big differences between Todd and me, though: 1) I am completely up-front about my biases, my background, and my ideological and political preferences, and 2) I am under no delusion that I’m a neutral arbiter. When I make assertions, I do my absolute best to back them up with verifiable evidence. And I certainly do not make any claims that I’ve been bestowed (by whom, Chuck Todd never makes clear) with some sort of official role in determining who is following The Rules™ and who isn’t.
This is what really rankles so many conservatives about their alleged media betters. It’s not the bias, at least not by itself. It’s the dishonesty. The smug sanctimony. It’s the refusal of so many of them to openly admit their biases and to admit their motivations: to put a thumb on the scale in favor of one of the competing parties. I want conservatism and limited government to win out in the end. Chuck Todd and many of his friends in media want the opposite. I’m honest about it, but too many of Todd’s colleagues are not.
Chuck Todd isn’t a referee. He’s a hack with a point of view, just like the rest of the us. The only difference is that he won’t admit it.