The Politics of Pundit Prestige...

The Liberal Media

By Eric Alterman

This article appeared in the April 23, 2007 edition of The Nation.

April 5, 2007

Back in the pre-Internet days of yore, political punditry was the best job in journalism and one of the best anywhere. You could spout off on anything you wanted, and almost nobody would call you on it, much less find a place to publish and prove you wrong. And once you had established yourself as "credible," it required little work, save coming up with a few semi-memorable phrases. (George Will's chef-d'oeuvre was opining that the Reagan Administration "loved commerce more than it loathed Communism.") With the advent of television talk shows, riches arrived in the form of corporate speaking gigs that paid tens of thousands of dollars an hour just to say the same damn thing you said on television. When Fred Barnes famously pronounced on The McLaughlin Group, "I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority," he was right, at least to the degree that he was really saying, "I can speak to almost anything without anyone pointing out how full of shit I usually am."

Eric Altermanwrites that lazy MSM pundits are being challenged on their accuracy, integrity and transparency.

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The advent of the Internet--particularly the blogosphere--has changed all that. Now, not only are the things pundits say and write preserved for posterity; there are legions of folks who track pundit pronouncements, fact-check their statements and compare them with previous utterances on the same and similar topics. They also demand a degree of transparency about methods of inquiry and the reasoning behind conclusions drawn. While proving pundits wrong--over and over and over--has not yet cost anyone a job, it has contributed to a precipitous decline in pundit prestige. The reaction to this decline varies from pundit to pundit, to be sure, but more often than not, it bespeaks a kind of panic.

America's most powerful and influential television journalist, NBC's Tim Russert, has taken a real blogosphere beating of late for his Libby trial admission that while, yes, he does consider himself to be a journalist, he does not think it proper to ask any news-related questions of top Bush Administration officials when they happen to phone him because, well, it's bad manners. (Libby was foolishly calling Russert to instruct him to shut up Chris Matthews.) His response? "Bloggers," said Russert in a recent speech, "all force candidates to accept a position, to play [an adversarial] role." This, unfortunately, in Russert's view, "puts pressure on those of us in the mainstream media [if we're not] sufficiently adversarial." Bad bloggers, bad.

Similarly, Tom Friedman's pleasant, well-remunerated life as America's most important foreign affairs columnist since Walter Lippmann would presumably be even pleasanter were he not consistently reminded of his proclivity to pronounce "the next six months in Iraq" to be the do-or-die period for the Bush Administration. (He did so four times during a single twelve-month period, as many in the blogosphere frequently note.) You can find the term "Friedman Unit"--also known as "one Friedman" or "one F.U."--in Wikipedia, credited to Atrios, as referring to "six months in the future." More broadly, "many political observers measure any date-specific statement by a public figure regarding the future of Iraq or the Iraq War in Friedman Units, thus suggesting that the speaker's predictions of a near-term resolution of the Iraq War amount to that speaker's de facto defense of the status quo."

How does the fabulously wealthy and influential Friedman defend his faulty analyses? He doesn't. Asked about them on CNN, Friedman complained that his critics--on the left and the right--just "want to be proven right."

The "left and right" dodge is particularly popular with pundits who wish to avoid responsibility for what they say and do. You can find Howard Kurtz, frequently criticized in the blogosphere for his glaring conflicts of interest--he reports on CNN for the Washington Post and on the Washington Post for CNN and to top it all off is married to a Republican political consultant and National Review contributor--taking the same tack. Though it may "disappoint people on both the left and the right," Kurtz responds, he is not "a super-opinionated ideologue who is going to tear down news organizations because they don't see the world as I do." Similarly, in a lengthy exchange in The Politico between the writers and editors of that publication and the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America over some of the former's inarguable (and admitted) journalistic lapses, ex-Washington Post political editor John Harris noted, "When something is so freighted with either left-wing or right-wing baggage, there is a tendency in most newsrooms to simply dismiss it as so much ranting." Harris appears to believe that this is a proper response. You see, MSM reporters have no "ideology"--which was why, presumably, they were able to report so many of George W. Bush's ideologically inspired lies about Iraq and other issues without thinking to question them.

Still, the folks at The Politico look admirably open-minded and eager to engage their critics compared with the likes of, say, Time's Joe Klein. My previous criticism of Klein's work--and only his work--resulted in a hysterical hate-filled interview he offered a blogger named Rory O'Connor. More recently on my Media Matters blog, Altercation, I reprinted without comment Klein's apparently airtight December 2000 prediction that "given the circumstances, there is only one possible governing strategy [for George W. Bush]: a quiet, patient, and persistent bipartisanship." I noted, in addition, how few of the large stable of columnists employed by Time had demonstrated the good sense to oppose George Bush's war. Klein responded with another series of schoolyard insults, terming yours truly "obsessed," "still-­obsessed," "futile and pathetic," "still pathetic," "still after" him, "a suck-up," "intellectually dishonest," "not reliable" and full of "non-stop crap."

Perhaps I am. Still, the problem persists. To put it bluntly, most MSM pundits are lazy, ill informed and in thrall to the specious arguments of the powerful people they are supposed to critique. The punditocracy may not like the blogosphere's diagnosis, but there is really only one way to get it off its collective back: Work harder, do a better job. It's really that simple.

About Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation and a fellow of The Nation Institute, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the "Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute . Alterman is also a regular columnist for Moment magazine and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. He is the author of seven books, including the national bestsellers, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003, 2004), and The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (2004). The others include: When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (2004, 2005). His Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992, 2000), won the 1992 George Orwell Award and his It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999, 2001), won the 1999 Stephen Crane Literary Award, and Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, (1998). His most recent book is Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals (2008, 2009).

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