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For many observers, the NBA Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat were a referendum on Miami star LeBron James’ character. Every aspect of his performance was dissected by the 24/7 news cycle of online journalism and social media.

But within this news cycle, the loss of perspective highlights a problem bigger than sports: Our culture is obsessed with the immediate and forgetful of the past. As the philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

When presidential candidates win a primary, they typically receive a significant boost in their poll-numbers. But in recent elections, the duration of that spike has shortened significantly. 

One compelling theory on why, offered by Slate Magazine’s Mickey Kaus, is the shortening of the news cycle. While people used to get the news through the morning paper and the evening broadcast, they are now increasingly getting it through cable TV and the internet. A news cycle used to last a day; now it barely lasts six hours. There used to be six or seven news cycles in the week between two primaries, now there are almost 21. The result is an artificial distortion of time in our minds: Events that happened just a few weeks before seem like ancient news.

There is no better example than the 2011 NBA playoffs, where a little over two weeks ago, James put on a historic performance against Derrick Rose, the league’s MVP, and the Chicago Bulls, the team with the NBA’s best record. In one of the best two-way performances in playoff history, James played a strong defense against Rose while closing out the Bulls with a barrage of jumpers in the fourth quarter of the last three games.

But, after a few bad games against Dallas, James was hounded for a number of issues — an inability to play in the clutch, shirking from the moment, deferring to his teammate Dwyane Wade. These were all flaws that were nowhere to be found a series ago. As one sportswriter tellingly wrote, “Maybe LeBron isn’t a superstar. If the 2011 NBA Finals were the only games I had seen him play, that would be my conclusion.”

There is an inherent problem with making such broad conclusions from a few data points: sample size. If you flip a coin 10 times, you probably won’t get an even number of heads and tails. But, by every order of 10 you flip, you are more and more likely to get a 50/50 split.

Back in 2007, Hilary Clinton was the “inevitable” choice to win the Democratic nomination. She had a commanding lead in the polls, and the pundits began blaming Barack Obama team’s campaign strategy, demanding the type of back-and-forth political attacks that would fill the airwaves.

Instead of worrying about news cycles and polls, Obama’s campaign was focused on one thing: delegates. While Hilary spent her campaign money on TV ads and high-priced consultants, Obama spent his money building a comprehensive 50-state campaign team, with organizers doing the hard work of knocking on doors, developing volunteers, and reaching out to voters across the country.

In essence, he won by turning off the TV, ignoring the news cycle, and doing the actual work of retail campaigning. 

Just as the media’s obsession with Hilary allowed Obama to quietly build up strength, the other story of the 2011 NBA Finals had initially been overlooked in the frenzy surrounding LeBron: Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki’s redemption. Until he won the championshp, nobody really cared about the aging German power forward. After devastating flameouts in the 2006 Finals and the first round of the 2007 playoffs, Nowitzki was widely written off as lacking the heart of a champion this season.

Rather than buy into the shallow media narrative of his career, he tweaked his game — shooting fewer 3-pointers and becoming more of a back-to-the-basket scorer — while maintaining an All-Star level of production. 

Both Nowitzki and Obama understood the same thing: The fundamentals (organizing voters at a grassroots level, scoring from the low post) have not changed, even if the media had. And if they could not see the big picture, the only thing to do was ignore them.

Photo Credit: bridgetds