Why The Media Missed The Dave Brat Story

Yesterday, Fox News’ Media Buzz ran a segment on why the media botched Eric Cantor’s loss.

The short answer is that there is little return on investment for doing this kind of reporting.

This is true for multiple reasons. First, we live in a world of limited resources. And just as politicians target which voters to pay attention to (or not), media outlets must husband their resources (and I’m including time as an especially precious resource).

Putting aside senate and gubernatorial races, there are 435 House races every two years. This doesn’t count primary elections or run-offs. Few national media outlets could pay attention to each of them, and so, choices are made.

In fairness, the choices aren’t even merely about which campaigns to cover, either. The choice for a lot of media folks was between focusing on Cantor’s race or…the VA scandal, the Bergdahl story or the Hillary book tour

(Had there not been a stunning outcome, I’ll let you guess which of these stories would have garnered fewer page views and ad impressions.)

Now, you might be thinking: “Yes — but this was a race against the House Majority Leader — and it took place in a bedroom community of Washington, D.C.!”

The fact that Cantor was the Majority Leader is an argument against covering this race — not for it. After all, no Majority Leader had ever been defeated before.

Since it’s impossible to cover every race, journalists invent shortcuts to tell them which races are worthy of their attention. You either cover every race indiscriminately, or you develop processes to help ascertain which stories deserve your attention, and which to weed-out.

And, in this case, all of the observable metrics — the polling, the money raised, etc. — implied this would be an easy Cantor victory.

So this is partly about playing the percentages. It’s like when a baseball manager decides to call in a left-handed relief pitcher to face a left-handed batter. There’s always a chance this move will backfire badly, but you do it because the odds are statistically in your favor.

The fact that almost any national reporter could have embedded in Cantor’s district and knocked on doors (and maybe — maybe! — divined that a tsunami was headed Cantor’s way) is beside the point.

You could do that in any of the 435 House races taking place this year, and you might even turn up one or two surprises, which also means you would go to hundreds of districts where there would be nothing new to see or report.

The cost, in time, energy and money — not to mention the opportunity cost (what else you might have done with that time and money) would far surpass any benefit you might gain by being the first person to realize that the next Eric Cantor is in trouble.

The question you always ask yourself before assigning or tackling any story is this: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

This may sound convenient coming from me, but this is, in may ways, a media story about the decline of local reporting. If the candidates didn’t realize something was up, and the pollsters didn’t see it coming and the other indicators such as the amount of money raised implied a Cantor win, it seems like local press — conducting independent surveys and shoe-leather reporting — might have been caught wind of something.

But they didn’t — either because this was so hard to spot that even a local Sherpa couldn’t see it, or because it broke late, or because local media bureaus have been cut to the bone. And so, the national media ends up looking silly.

At the end of the day, the reason the national media missed this story is because anyone using prudent business logic to drive their assignment/reporting decisions would have missed this story.

In a world of limited resources, you marshal your resources to where you get the most return on investment. And from a business standpoint, missing the Brat story was simply a calculated risk.