Blogging in Berkeley. Notes on news, politics, law, and technology in the US and China. [This blog is inactive. I am now staying busy and having a great time at UVA Law.]
Thursday, January 27, 2005
  High Hopes and Low Expectations

Ambassador Michael Novak thinks many people are in for a surprise on January 30, and so do I.

I hate it when someone tells me a movie is great. It raises my expectations, and when I finally go to see it myself the movie rarely meets those expectations. This happened to me with the "Matrix" for example. I was told that I should prepare myself for "the greatest movie of all time." I did, and I was very disappointed. I have also often had it happen that somebody would tell me that a movie is not very good, and with those low expectations I am pleasantly surprised to find it has positive qualities when I see it myself. This happened for me recently with the movie "Alexander." I check the Rotten Tomatoes collection of film critic reviews before I see any movie, and "Alexander" got the lowest cumulative score I had ever seen from their featured critics: 8%. "You Got Served" -- an infamously bad, teen dance movie --with a score of 22% did far better than Academy Award winning director Oliver Stone's latest film, so apparently expectations have something to with the perception of quality for professionals as well. I decided to ignore the reviews and check out "Alexander" anyway (I figured I could leave early if it was unbearable), but I was expecting to see a truly awful film. It turned out to be a mediocre film with a few redeeming qualities, which given my deflated expectations made it seem pretty good. A few people in the theater did not enjoy it as much as me, so I guess they had not yet read the reviews.

This psychological phenomenon does not just happen with movies. Take for example the strategy the Bush campaign used to manipulate the reporting on the conventions last year during the presidential campaign:

The Kerry campaign seemed trumped by some of the oldest tricks. Matthew Dowd, the pollster and chief of the BC04 "Strategery Department," kept predicting to reporters that if history was an indicator, Kerry would get a 15-point bounce out of the Democratic convention. The prediction, though inflated and intended to create false expectations, was widely played in the press. Kerry came out of Boston with little or no boost in the polls. (Adman Mark McKinnon laughed about a "dead-cat bounce," from a sick Wall Street joke: even a dead cat bounces if dropped from a high enough ledge.) Dowd then set about lowering expectations for Bush, saying that, historically, the incumbent gets only about two thirds of the challenger's postconvention bounce. Since two thirds of zero is zero, that's about what Bush would get, Dowd insisted to reporters. The whole exercise was a transparent effort to spin, to play the old expectations game. The average bounce for an incumbent was more like 10 percent (Newsweek).

For the most part this strategy seems to have worked. Bush's "bounce" was treated as a surprising success and Kerry's unbounciness was an unanticipated failure. With a different set of expectations there may have been a different perception of the part of those reporting on the presidential campaign. Which brings me back to Michael Novak:

In much the same way, the press seems to be taking for granted a downward spiral in Iraq, and even longing for it. Many reporters in Iraq, especially but not only from the Associated Press, report the news that cheers our enemy, and leave out the stories that give comfort to our own troops. That is a constant complaint of military bloggers and military in the field sending e-mails to friends.

Press distortions have so lowered expectations about the January 30 election that the world may be startled by the outcome. The percentage of Iraqi actually voting may be higher than in the United States last fall. It might reach higher than 70 percent. It may rival turnout in Afghanistan.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the press in Iraq is distorting the reality of what is happening there with their reporting; and I don't know because I have not been there to see for myself. But regardless of the media accuracy, the reports coming from Iraq are setting expectations for the election on January 30 very low. Bad news will not be a surprise. Should there be some moderate level of success in the security, participation, execution, or results of the election it may be perceived as an enormous achievement. Ambassador Michael Novak points out that many are expecting the worst, while he is expecting some very positive news. They all might be surprised on January 30.


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