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January 3, 2004

Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!

The origins of the term "inside baseball" are in one writer's view of sports reporting during the 1980s. He's Bill James, now a famous scholar of baseball. The arguments he made then explain why the term migrated so easily to politics. The inside, said James, is a hall of mirrors.

The horse race lives in 2004. It lives defiantly, as two recent accounts show.

Let the record reflect that on the first day of 2004, Adam Nagourney, political reporter for the New York Times, wrote an assessment of the campaign for president in which the word Internet did not appear once. (Although he did mention an email message the Gephardt campaign sent out.)

The next day a similar article—taking stock of the race so far—appeared in the Washington Post. There too the word Internet did not show up. “Rivals hone their stop Dean strategies” was the headline on Jim VandeHei’s page one account. It’s a standard entry in the horse race category, strategy division:

The strategies range from Rep. Richard A. Gephardt’s one-state last stand in Iowa to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman’s rapid-fire attacks on Dean to retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark’s national campaign on electability. All of them depend on Dean stumbling during the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary the following week.

In a horse race world; polls are a baseline reality. They can tell you who’s ahead but not why. And they are mute on a favorite horse race question: how things are going to “play out from here,” as reporters and pundits say. For that we need savvy analysis, and this especially means the view of insiders, the savviest of all.

Right there is the connection between the horse race—a master narrative—and “inside baseball,” which is a reporting method. The insiders know the horse race best, they understand how Things Play Out. In his sources, statements, and overall style, Adam Nagourney of the Times Washington bureau—well respected among peers for his experience and knowledge of the game—is as inside as they get.

And so his quotes came from established observers like former Senator Bob Kerry (who had once run in the primaries), Bruce Reed of the “centrist Democratic Leadership Council,” (the ascendant faction during the Clinton years) and Simon Rosenberg, “former adviser to Mr. Clinton who now heads the New Democrat Network, a group of moderate Democrats.”

Along with his named sources, Nagourney invents an interesting composite figure to pass along the wisdom of his worried insiders— wisdom he’s collected by calling around, doing his reporting. The source’s name is usually “Democrats” or “some Democrats,” placeholder terms for a political faction speaking through Nagourney, who in this case is their medium. Why this faction, at this time? It must have something to do with what the reporter thinks is going on. I wrote down the phrases that appear when the composite talks. Each creates room for Nagourney to characterize the political moment:

And what are his “many Democrats” chattering about? Well, it’s an insider-ish thing, but real enough: Changes in the primary system intended to produce a stronger candidate are compressing the action and forcing the candidates to attack each other. Nagourney figured he had the goods for a Race Turns Negative Early story. And he did.

Now eleven days earlier Frank Rich, of the same New York Times (Sunday arts section) had described how tone deaf this kind of coverage could be in 2004. (And I wrote a response.) How, he asked, could the establishment press overlook the rise of the Net, and the intersecting trends in politics, public media, and popular culture, and yet hope to understand the success of Howard Dean, frontrunner in the bloody horse race? Nagourney’s theme was attacks have come early. But Rich wrote: “A tough new anti-Dean attack ad has been put up on the campaign’s own site, where it’s a magnet for hundreds of thousands of dollars in new contributions.”

In between the quotes, horse race journalism has its own sound. We know this sound. It’s there in the sports and military clichés that characterize daily writing in the genre. “The nastiness of this campaign makes it difficult to go to an overarching message,” Bob Kerrey says. Listen to the language as Nagourney comments:

This verdict comes after a long year of preliminary skirmishing. Now the battle among nine candidates moves into a critical phase with the start of the new year and with a rush of contests that Democrats say is likely to produce a nominee by mid-March.

Hear it? It’s that sportsy, heading-into-showdown sound. There are aural passages connecting it to This Week in the NFL. Then there’s this, which seeks to establish who’s to blame for “race turns negative.” It makes double use of the composite figure:

Dr. Dean’s complaints notwithstanding, many Democrats said it had been his campaign — the hard-hitting outsider mocking the Washington Democratic establishment candidates to approving cheers — that set the tone. Those attacks have rankled his opponents, and raised, or lowered, the bar on campaign discourse, several Democrats said.

Nagourney, if you read carefully, cannot here decide whether the standard of campaign discourse has been raised or lowered by Howard Dean. The inside baseball dialect has its limitations.

The first time I recall hearing the phrase “inside baseball” the context was major league baseball. The originator of the term, so far as I know, is the author and baseball abstracter, Bill James. I was a Mets fan reading him in the 1980s when he began to attract attention for his analysis of players and teams in The Bill James Baseball Abstract.

James was originally a press critic. He came to his ideas via philosophical conflict with the sportswriters’ tribe. He thought baseball journalists had a firm grasp on the wrong end of the telescope. They were looking at their subject in a way that shrank it to insignificance, compared to the big picture James saw by tinkering with different measures over longer arcs of time. Thus, he spoke against inside baseball but also for “outside baseball,” taking the longer view but bringing that longer view into the game played tonight.

James thought the baseball establishment—which included the press—knew a great many things that were demonstrably wrong. Lore and legend counted for more in the industry than fact and pattern, despite all the time the professionals spent studying baseball, talking about it— living it. “My goal when I started writing wasn’t to create a lot of statistics,” he told USA Today. “My goal was to create a field of knowledge.” This alternative field was the outside baseball view, “what baseball looks like if you step back from it and study it intensely and minutely, but from a distance.”

That image reminds me of author Gay Talese, who tells how he tacked the pages of his magazine articles to the wall, in order to step back and read the draft with binoculars. Talese was studying his narrative minutely and intensely— by backing up. This was the Bill James approach (and he was a good writer.) Today he is hailed for revolutionizing the understanding of baseball for insiders and the people. He makes a good living with his knowledge, and works as a consultant for the Red Sox.

The sportswriters who covered major league baseball (as well as executives who ran it, James said) had made themselves clueless about certain patterns in the game. Journalists had too much confidence in their standard way of knowing, and in order to call attention to this, James needed to call it something: “inside baseball.” It was both an unquestioned practice and a semi-conscious belief among sports reporters.

The practice was to head into the locker room after the Yankees defeat the White Sox for interviews with players and coaches about all manner of “inside” stuff. How George Steinbrenner’s latest rant about his team was affecting the players under his microscope. What pitch was thrown to Derek Jeter, who got the big hit.

This may be knowledge only three people—pitcher, catcher, hitter—have. In soliciting it during post-game interviews, reporters say they are taking us inside the event, closer to its reality. The missing knowledge, they believe, is in the locker room, the dugout, the team bus, the psychology of the players and the relations among them. These are all “restricted” areas that reporters pry into for us. Thus we too can be inside, with the team, by virtue of what sociologist Erving Goffman called “backstage knowledge.”

Inside baseball is both a knowledge system and a belief system; and James, I believe, was the first to point out how comically prevalent its sound and metaphors were:

Inside stuff is very big in sportswriting today. TV shows, newspaper columns and sometimes whole books are dubbed “Inside Baseball” and “Inside Football”; magazines run features called “Inside Pitch” and “Inside Corner” and promote “Inside Scouting Reports.” A book appears called “High Inside,” and months later, another follows called “High and Inside.” The Society for American Baseball Research, an aggregation of dedicated outsiders outside of whom one can scarcely get, compiles a collection of research pieces into a book; this is called, of course, “Insiders Baseball.”

James was satirist to this trend, before it showed up as the prevalent pattern—and a commonly used phrase—in political journalism:

Inside looks, inside glimpses, inside locker rooms and inside blimpses; within months we shall have seen the inside of everything that one can get inside of without a doctor’s help, and now that I think about that I remember seeing a sample copy of a Las Vegas tout sheet that featured an “Inside Medical Report.”

Today in politics, there’s the CNN show, “Inside Politics.” The Washington Times and the Seattle Times have columns with the same name. In exact parallel to the locker room crush, campaign reporters head for Spin Alley after the debate to interview the inside players, the same names and faces seen on pundit shows. Analysts like Nagourney call around to those players, and package the results as “Democrats say…”

The post-game interview is the ritual at the center of inside baseball. James doubted it had much information value. After all, the players knew the sportswriters’ methods. (Just as political players know the ways of the press.) The foolish athlete gets into wars with the team writers and vows not to cooperate. “Silence, though, is but the ultimate weapon, the last line of defense,” James wrote, “The first line of defense is the cliché.”

How do you feel today Jim I’m optimistic I’ve always had good luck against Lefty Grove what did he throw you that you hit into the seats I think it was a breaking pitch that didn’t break is this the biggest day of your life no this is just the first step we still have to win the series has Willie helped the team Willie has added a dimension to the team that we didn’t have before and how about Frank Frank has adapted to his role well and hasn’t complained at all about not being used more why did you fire Charlie I’ve the greatest respect for Charlie but sometimes a change just has to be made…

“An army of sentries encircles the game, guarding every situation from which a glimmer of fresh truth might be allowed to escape,” James wrote. (Substitute for “game” the word “campaign.”) From his angle, the sportswriter is less interested in dispensing knowledge than in monopolizing analysis and discussion of the game. This is done by popularizing the sportswriter’s clichés until they become the sound fans expect to hear.

The outside view didn’t require locker room access. It was there in the action itself, in the part of baseball the fans could see for themselves, or read in a box score. Or even study. Outside baseball was publicly-available knowledge taken deeper by the writer, and that’s the formula James followed to fame and modest fortune. Inside baseball is backstage knowing, and it requires a gate. It is in some sense about the gate.

How is it you know you’re the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that’s why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what’s going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate. Your clichés, and the athlete’s clichés and the clichés of the coaches are a barrier between fans and the beauty of the game. James was a radical. He was out to destroy and re-build. What he said was: access means zip. You can learn more from the outside.

And sometimes you can. (At other times, access means everything to the story.)

I hope other journalists confronting the political puzzles of 2004 will read James, read Adam Nagourney and Jim VandeHei and hear their defiant cry: Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever! And I hope other journalists will ask themselves: must this go on indefinitely?

Meanwhile, the weblog world is starting to stir a bit with the idea of monitoring individual campaign reporters. (But for what?) Steve Gilliard: “I think it would be a really, really good idea to track reporters, word for word, broadcast for broadcast, and print the results online. Not just for any one campaign or cause, but to track people’s reporting the way we track other services.”

Atrios adds his vote: “We spend a lot of time focusing on the pundits, but it’s really the journalists under the cover of ‘objectivity’ who turned the ‘00 campaign coverage into a travesty. We should have an ‘adopt a journalist’ program. As Steve suggests, people should choose a journalist, follow everything they write, archive all their work, and critique and contextualize it where appropriate.”

There is already one “tracking” weblog for an individual journalist: the Wilgoren Watch, which monitors the reporting of Jody Wilgoren from the New York Times.

Of course, you have to know what to watch for.

Wow. Baseball revolutionary Bill James, Daniel Okrent (now the public editor of the New York Times and the man who invented Rotiserie baseball), ace weblogger and Reason writer Matt Welch, bestselling author Michael Lewis of Moneyball are connected into one story by this wonderful post from Henry Copeland, Dan Okrent Discovered Bill James. (Link via Ed Cone.)

Read baseball writer Bill James on the Inside Out Perspective.

Okay, so what are some of the alternatives to the horse race thing? PressThink: Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative.

Halley of Halley’s Comment points to this Nagourney story from August 2003 about “worried Democrats” contemplating the field, a similar theme. Snippet: “Many prominent democrats said…”

Doc Searls comments on this post: “War and sports won’t go away. But some other metaphor will come to describe more of what’s really going on in a field where networked citizens get smarter faster than the insititutions that that govern them.” And possibly the institutions that inform them?

Dick Morris, column in The Hill: “Dean is only beginning to educate us on the impact of the Internet. When the votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses, I believe, he will achieve a level of turnout and an intensity of support that dwarfs that which can be stimulated by conventional media, mailing or phoning campaigns.” In other words, the Internet is a horse race story.

See comments section with Dave Winer, Tom Mangan, Halley Suitt, Heather Gladney, TwinsFanDan, Douglas Kutach and Matt Welch, among others.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 3, 2004 11:09 PM