My Turn: Politicians, journalists and the game

Monitor Opinion Editor
Published: 2/9/2020 6:00:23 AM

What if sports writers covered athletes the way political writers cover politicians? Sure, they would still write about how players perform in actual games, but they would also file breathless stories like this: “Xander Bogaerts, incumbent shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, told a crowd of reporters and fans yesterday that he will hit 74 home runs this coming season. When asked how he planned to break the single-season home run record when he has never before hit more than 33 in a season, Bogaerts said, ‘If you take a look at my website, xanderforboston.com, you’ll see that we’ve put together a solid plan for hitting at least 74 balls over various walls in various stadiums around the country during the course of a 162-game season. That’s my promise to the people of Boston and all of Red Sox Nation.’ ”

Any sports fan who read that kind of story would just shake their head. How is it news that a player says he’s going to hit 74 home runs? There’s a reason why the phrase “talk is cheap” is a cliché. It’s so cheap that in most cases it has no value whatsoever.

In real life, everybody knows this just as they know that fire is hot and ice is cold. Telling your kids that you’re taking them to Disney World is not the same thing as taking your kids to Disney World. Promising your spouse that you will cook dinner tonight is not the same thing as cooking dinner. You get it. So why do we spend so much time listening to politicians tell us what they are going to do if elected when we all know that it’s not entirely, or even mostly, up to them any more than it’s up to Xander Bogaerts how many home runs he hits?

And, yes, I’m being deliberately obtuse about political campaigns. I get that stump speeches, white papers and pledges are ways for candidates to tell voters what they value. If a candidate says she supports Medicare for All, she’s signaling that she believes people pay way too much for health care and that as president she would try to solve that problem as completely as possible. She knows that her support for Medicare for All is largely meaningless if she can’t find the votes in Congress. Further, she knows that unless this nation addresses how big money influences decisions in Washington, Medicare for All (or free college, or the Green New Deal, or fair tax reform) has as much chance of happening as Xander hitting 300 home runs this season.

I never thought I’d write these words, but Donald Trump gets it. Why not tell voters and journalists that he’s going to build a big, beautiful wall and that Mexico is going to pay for it? It’s a puff of smoke, but reporters have to write it up. Barack Obama got it too. Did he end the war in Iraq? Close Guantanamo? Create a cap and trade system? Eliminate tax breaks for big corporations? Nope, but the “if wishes were horses” headlines sure didn’t hurt.

Don’t get me wrong: There are some really bright political reporters out there. A bunch of them are in good old New Hampshire right now. They know what Trump’s all about and they know what the presidential candidates are up to. But just like sports reporters, they have to cover the game that’s played.

The stories that the people really need – the unbiased deep dives made digestible – are the ones most of them probably wouldn’t read even if all those bright journalists had the opportunity to write them. That’s not a knock on voters or journalists; it’s a statement about the value of their time. There’s a reason people dig Twitter.

So that’s where we’re at: Trying to pick the next president based almost entirely on what they tell us they’re going to do in a perfect world that we all know with unshakeable certainty doesn’t exist.

But can you imagine if Xander Bogaerts hit 74 home runs? I can. It doesn’t cost a dime to dream.




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