From Socrates to Same-Sex Marriage: Pondering The Pundit

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TV analysts face few repercussions for shoddy, dishonest commentary. What makes a good talking head?

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The world about which each man is supposed to have opinions has become so complicated as to defy his powers of understanding. What he knows of events that matter enormously to him, the purposes of governments, the aspirations of peoples, the struggle of classes, he knows at second, third or fourth hand. He cannot go and see for himself. Even the things that are near to him have become too involved for his judgment.
            -Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News, 1920

Atlantic senior editor Alex Madrigal posted a provocative piece Wednesday poking in earnest around the edges of a question that has confounded observers and navel-gazers since at least 399 B.C., the year Nancy Grace on the hit show "Act Now, Athenians!" first plugged an IFB into her ear to harangue Plato and proclaim guilt even before the verdict came down in Socratesepic trial. The question is: why do so many pundits lie?

Actually, Madrigal's article was less about the reasons why pundits lie and more about the way in which technology, in the form of the remote television-expert sound-bite "hit," may make it easier for them to do so. I don't buy his ultimate conclusion -- I think people who are willing to lie on television will do so anywhere, anytime, using any technical means available -- but I would like to pick up where his good piece leaves off.

As someone who has done close to 4,000 of those remote "hits" during 15 years of life as a radio and television talking head, and as someone who has watched thousands more on television, I believe I have earned the right to offer the following conclusions about the art and science of punditry -- and especially the nature of the lying or deceitful pundit, which Madrigal reasonably bemoans. Here are a few quick observations.

First, what exactly is a pundit, anyway? Wikipedia tells us that a "pundit" is "someone who offers to mass media his or her opinion or commentary on a particular subject area (most typically political analysis, the social sciences or sport) on which they are "knowledgeable." But this is a terrible definition, and certainly overinclusive, in part because it does not help us distinguish good pundits from bad ones. 

There are certainly "knowledgeable" analysts, on set or in remote studios, who earnestly try to help us understand the complexities of our time. These analysts and commentators are less concerned with persuading their audience to come around to a particularly point of view than they are with trying to explain news or nascent trends in their area of expertise. These are the "good pundits" and they add context and perspective to our lives.  

But there are a great many "knowledgeable" talking heads on television -- particularly posing as political analysts -- whose opinions aren't worth the spit it takes to share them. Now that political coverage has become a cash cow for media companies, these men and women use their expertise and inside contacts to shill for a particular partisan cause or to promote a particular issue or candidate. These are the "bad pundits," the ones to which Madrigal refers.

There are more "bad pundits" today than good ones for some of the same reasons that there are more reality shows on television than there are serious documentaries. News programs that use pundits aren't (just) looking for smart commentary. They also are looking for sizzle and certitude from their guests. They are looking for entertainment. You can be right or wrong, a famous television producer once told me, just don't be boring.

So, sadly, the analyst who candidly declares she isn't quite sure how the Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act -- as if anyone does -- is far less appealing as a television character than is the analyst willing to declare with metaphysical certainty how the vote will go. It doesn't matter if the second analyst turns out to be wrong or the first analyst turns out to be right. What matters is that he gave good quote and she didn't.

There is virtually no accountability when it comes to punditry -- Madrigal sure is right about that. But it's more a problem of journalistic ethics and corporate priorities than it is a problem of technology. Take the aforementioned Nancy Grace, for example (please). That she was critically wrong about the Casey Anthony case made her no less popular with her fans; indeed, her ratings surged the night of that verdict. There is no justice in the world of punditry.

Now a word about the lying pundit. I believe that there are some analysts who go on television and radio and lie when delivering their speeches. Here again, old Lippmann is instructive: "If I lie in a lawsuit involving the fate of my neighbor's cow," he wrote in 1920, "I can go to jail. But if I lie to a million readers in a matter involving war and peace, I can lie my head off, and, if I choose the right series of lies, be entirely irresponsible."

Modern-day pundits lie because they feel it will help their careers or promote the causes they hold dear. They lie because they know it will generate a reaction among their fellow pundits and perhaps spur a particularly entertaining show segment. They lie because they know they will likely get away with it, that there is no reckoning other than not being called back by the producers of the show. It's market dynamics: The reward is far greater than the risk. 

But I believe that most pundits, even some of the ones Madrigal and millions of others would lament, honestly believe the spin they are spinning when they go on television. These people are not "lying" in the conventional sense of the word, and certainly not in the legal sense of it, because they typically bind their opinions to some fact, theory or perception that falls within the vast range of contemporary thought which Americans consider "plausible."

They are able to do this, en masse, because viewers tolerate it and because show producers and hosts believe it makes for good television. The pundit today who goes on TV and decries as bunk the theory of evolution, for example, deserves no credit as a reasonable man. But television isn't interested in reasonableness or in resolving the debate; it's interested in exploring contours. Madrigal would like some cosmic scorecard to keep track? So would I.

A pundit should aspire to inspire in every viewer the thought: "I understand better now." Not some partisan spin on an argument. Not some lawyer's brief. Not some politician's blather. Not some gadfly's moment. But rather a deeper understanding of the nuances that live within all of the modern political and legal conflicts of our time. "I have just learned something I did not know about an issue about which I care." That's the response an analyst should shoot for.

This is what I aspire to, anyway, and on my best days hope to achieve. I love being in a remote studio looking into that camera readying myself to go live with a studio host. I don't feel like the technology surrounding me makes me want to lie. On the contrary, in that tense moment, I feel like making sure my truest voice is heard. Oh, and I hate being called a pundit as much as I love trying to explain the intricacies of the law to people who care.

Image credit: Fred Prouser/Reuters

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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