The bullshit in Philadelphia Magazine’s “No Bullshit Mayoral Election Guide”

mayoral election guideElections and bullshit go together. That’s why I was intrigued to get several suggestions to analyze Philadelphia Magazine’s “No Bullshit Mayoral Election Guide.” Sadly, I think bullshit is an essential element of all election guides, including this one.

Patrick Kerkstra, writing in Philadelphia Magazine, describes his guide this way:

… [W]e’ve put together this bottom-line assessment of the candidates’ greatest strengths, and their biggest weaknesses. It’s a different sort of voter guide. No hemming or hawing. Just our brutally honest read on what each candidate brings to the game, and what they leave on the sidelines.

I wish this were true. Unfortunately, when it comes to elections, the only facts are dry candidate positions. Everything else is opinion, and in this guide, those opinions are hedged with weasel words (shown below in bold italic). Here’s what Kerskstra had to say about Jim Kenney, who ended up winning the primary:

Case for Kenney: . . . a record of attracting capable staffers and  his campaign has clearly been the best managed in the contest, in spite of its very late start. That suggests Kenney knows how to take advice from experts and keep a group of people rowing in the same direction — both are vital skills for any mayor. . . . generally well-liked on Council. He’s also received a kind of quasi-endorsement from City Council President Darrell Clarke.

Case against Kenney: . . . Apart from running an effective campaign, Kenney has never managed a large operation, and he’s never had a full-time job outside of politics.  . . . There are questions about his temperament. Kenney blows his stack from time to time (he told a reporter last year that Mayor Nutter was “a fucking dickhead”). Can he keep his temper in check in an incredibly difficult job?

So it’s not just a quasi-endorsement, it’s a kind of quasi-endorsement — weasel-words-squared. That campaign experience might show he can run the city, then again it might not. And he might or might not be able to control his temper. This equivocation is pretty far from “no-bullshit.”

While this guide could be bolder, any article of this kind is doomed. Election coverage and bullshit go together. Here’s why:

  • Biased publications slant. The Daily Kos is liberal (they would say “progressive.”) Fox News is conservative. Both will be bold, but they won’t be unbiased.
  • Balanced publications hedge. It’s not appropriate for Philadelphia Magazine, The LA Times, or ABC News to state their opinions as facts. In pursuit of balance, they show both sides — which means weaseling. Notice how easily deniable Kerkstra’s statements are: if Kenney is an effective manager, they’ll say his campaign was a good predictor, otherwise, they’ll point out that he’s never run anything bigger than a campaign. In other words, these “both-sides” opinions are meaningless.
  • Subsequent articles reveal the “opinion/fact/surprise” cycle. A reporter who takes a stand must then interpret results in light of that stand. If Kenney has problems with the City Council, Kerkstra will write something like this: “In light of his previous good relationship with the City Council, the recent dustup was surprising.” While reporters can try to purge bias, their opinions turn into facts in their minds; when reality contradicts those “facts,” it becomes a “surprise.” Be wary of towers of supposition like this in political reporting.

Graphic: Philadelphia Magazine.

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