Idea of the DayTuesday, June 16, 2009

Regulate Pundits

Joshua Green on Meet the Press/Getty Images

They're everywhere: you can't escape them. Hear them loudly holding forth, barking their ungrounded certainties about anything and everything on the Sunday shows and cable shoutfests, in newspapers, blogs, and on Twitter. Should misfortune deposit you inside the Beltway, they'll oppress you in person, too, forcing their opinions on you in greenrooms and on elevators and at cocktail parties—even while sitting behind you on the Metro. Yes, pundits are a plague on us all. It is time we acted.

The crowning indignity, of course, is that they're usually wrong. Not just off-by-a-few-degrees wrong, but invading-Iraq-is-a-good-idea wrong. "Dow 36,000" wrong. And what are the consequences? There are none at all! You can blow the biggest questions of the day, time after time, and still claim to be a discerning seer.

Well, there ought to be consequences. It's not as if blogs and propaganda outlets don't keep track of this stuff. In Washington, regulation is back in fashion. If we can regulate tricky things like credit-default swaps, surely we can regulate pundits.

That pesky First Amendment prevents us from silencing them outright. But couldn't the more reputable media outlets reach a gentleman's agreement to stop inviting commentary from the very worst offenders, at least for a respectable interlude? Pundits should have to explain their bad calls (and grovel?) as a condition of return.

It's always amazed me that entire foundations seem to exist solely for the purpose of dispatching hordes of green-eyeshaded technicians to pore over transcripts and news clippings in a civic-minded effort to detect "bias" in media coverage. Who cares? Why not measure quality—or the lack thereof—instead? That would be useful information.

Regulating pundits needn't be the province of dull nonprofits and media scolds. It could be fun! What would be more satisfying than a Daily Show segment that routinely held the worst offenders up for public ridicule? Let's keep a list of them online—a surefire traffic-generator if ever there was one. Some reputable publication with a track record more often right than wrong could serve as sponsor and steward. And let's steal Gawker's inspired idea of "commenter executions"—the ritual humiliation and banishment of those whose opinions are the most punishingly tiresome and stupid. Together, we'll purge the violators from our blogrolls and kill their Twitter feeds. The terrified owners of sinking mainstream media outlets will quake with fear and snap into line.

Not only would this be a valuable public service, but I predict it would be a big hit. In fact, I'm certain. And if I'm wrong, you won't hear any more from me.

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Comments (5)

I wish this would be wildly popular, I am not so sure, though. This was a very entertaining feature of Brill's Content, which did not last 9though that might have a lot more to do with it's founder than the quality of the feature). As I recall, they watched the Sunday talking head shows and made note of every verifiable prediction made, then went back later to see how they fared. As I recall, they all fared rather miserably.

Government regulation of pundits would as you point out be against the 1st amendment, and would be an unjust imposition against freedom even if we didn't have a 1st amendment, but then you don't seem to really be talking about government regulation (which is the way the word regulation is most often used, even though it isn't definitionally limited to actions of government), but some form of reputation system.

Problems with that.

1 - It probably won't be seriously attempted.

2 - If seriously attempted it probably won't work.

3 - It probably shouldn't be made to work. "Right" or not right is subject to disagreement and subjective judgment. Not always, for example the DOW didn't go to 36,000 (well presumably it eventually will, but we could be waiting for a very long time, and the prediction wasn't put forward that way), but in other cases its subjective.

It would be a good idea. If most people cared if pundits were actually right or not. Most of the people watching TV do realize that these guys are wrong more often than not. But they still keep watching. Ratings are the bottom line, and control everything in TV. Ratings control advertising, and advertising is where these guys make money. If people stopped watching certain pundits, they wouldn't be back on TV. But it is precisely the false claims that these guys make which is why they keep ending back up on TV rather than someone who knows what they are actually talking about. Most people, especially those who use the MSM are their sole source of news info, don't especially care about hearing the truth. They want people who reinforce their misguided thoughts, people who tell them that they are right.

Together, we'll purge the violators from our blogrolls and kill their Twitter feeds. The terrified owners of sinking mainstream media outlets will quake with fear and snap into line.
Your valiant attempt at hyperbole notwithstanding, I think there is some merit in holding people accountable for doing their jobs poorly. Assuming, of course, that being correct more often than not is a major part of a pundit's job. If, on the other hand, the pundit's place in the world is to turn our political process into a spectator sport, then your "purge" and "kill" suggestions would fit in quite well. And since the spectacle tends to be our first priority in political commentary, I'll continue to do what's worked for me so far:

Rely on my own observation and analysis to help me determine my position on political issues and subsequently rely on my Magic 8 Ball to help me determine whether that position will "win the day".

The pundits will have to do their jobs without me.

I've always taken the words of the "pundits" with a thousand grains of salt. I wonder how they get the reputation of being pundits? It certainly isn't from their wisdom, their accuracy of predictions, or their actual knowledge of what's going on in the world. Perhaps it's just that they love to talk and have a particular ax to grind about politics and economics. It could be that they just are brazen enough to attract attention and become noticed by the public. Our country prides itself on free speech. Pundits take full advantage of this, and it's good, to a point. Anyone want to buy a bridge? No? Then you probably don't care to give your trust to a pundit, either.

I certainly wouldn't want to deprive the pundits or the media of their freedom to air their views. What I'd like to see the media do, is to go back several years of a pundit's remarks and predictions, and air them to the public after the actual truth has proved them right or wrong. If they prove incorrect over 50 per cent of the time, then the media should strip them of their title of pundit. Of course, that might mean that the media would completely run out of verifiable pundits in a fairly short while. Some people just want to hear a "so-called pundit" air views that confirm their own views. Instead of completely getting rid of pundits, why not just drop the title, and call them something else that doesn't connote extra special knowledge?.

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