From Socrates to Same-Sex Marriage: Pondering The Pundit

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.

Presented by

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

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