Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can't, Debate.

A Tweet-war over the weekend raises an old ghost of a question: are critics who stand outside the fray worth listening to?

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In an oft-quoted speech from 1910, Teddy Roosevelt outlined the contours of a debate with a long pedigree. What use are critics--people who endlessly debate, ponder, and discuss, or in other words, pundits--compared to men of action? Rough-rider Roosevelt thinks they're not worth much:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly...who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

This weekend the theme resurfaced in particularly contemporary form when Rafat Ali, founder of the blog PaidContent, crabbily tweeted that all the debate about "the future of journalism" is taking place among journalists with no business experience, taking aim at those who pitch impractical plans with no sense of the consequences. This pithy quote, which aptly sums up his view, went viral:

"At the cost of repeating: those who can, do, those who can't, discuss the future of journalism."

Ever sarcastically, NYU media guru Jay Rosen replied in kind by shooting down a journalist for lacking the proper credentials to write about the collapse of newspapers, snarling, "No PhD. No scholarly monographs. What is this shit? Get some experts."

The reason for his defensiveness is that many of the heavy hitters implicitly captured in Ali's criticism--such as Rosen himself and Mediashift host Mark Glaser--have made their careers on media commentary, not running things. Journalists with business bona fides such as Nick Denton teased the Web gurus for, in Denton's words, being "the only ones with time" to opine about the future of media.

How did they defend themselves? Somewhat meekly. Glaser admitted it was "brutal truth," while Rosen argued back that the more perspectives on journalism, the better:

My own view is that the journalism puzzle is a hard enough problem to require the talents of many: doers, thinkers, funders, geeks and users.

This round of the debate seems to go to the "men of action." But are pundits in general really so useless? It's tempting to say a reflexive "Yes," but when you compare writers from political backgrounds with conventional critics, the lines aren't so clear. Many of the most trusted names on the left and right have little practical experience, while experienced politicians who have made the leap are not always leading commentators.

Who of these pundits is more trusted?

  • Newt Gingrich or George Will on conservative politics?
  • Karl Rove or David Brooks on domestic politics?
  • James Carville or Paul Krugman on liberal politics?
  • George Stephanopoulos or Thomas Friedman on domestic politics?

The connection between critical insight and relevant background is obviously more complex than a simple one-to-one correlation. But even as the blogging era has diminished the importance of sterling biographies in commentary, the blow-up over Rafat Ali shows that Roosevelt-spirited criticism of critics still stings.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.