Just asking! For all the mega-money that’s been tossed into the elections, there is only one poll that matters…and that’s the vote count at the end of the day. We might also want to give some consideration to a National Ignore the Pundits Day, which I’d not so humbly suggest be the day after any election.
Pundits are on my television screen because (1) they’re available – think Senator John McCain (R- Green Room) and (2) because the producers of the shows know that their contributions will either enhance or assault the Narrative of the Day. Cable “news” doesn’t just happen – it’s produced. Let’s take a look at the job description of a “producer:”
“Television producers make sure that television shows run smoothly in all details, and take responsibility for everything from coordinating writers and performers/correspondents right down to overseeing the fact-checking of credit names and titles.” [Princeton Review]
Note, the show must run ‘smoothly’ and the fact-checking is concerned with getting the credit names and titles broadcast correctly. What the contributors and anchors have to say will be either ‘scripted’ or at least expected. No one on the production end really wants any major surprises.
Pundits and anchors want to ask questions, but the production will determine the level and type of information made available. There are a few, a resplendent few, anchors who will actually elicit information of use to the general public. Because the sponsors of a production don’t care to pay for air time in which their interests aren’t supported, we’d be better off not to expect the national media to do a very good job of getting facts together in a coherent package – and for the most part they don’t. Public television and local shows tend to do a better job in this department.
Back in 1994 Peter Anderson’s analysis of the press made an observation about the Perfect News Story. A perfect news story had (1) a celebrity, plus (2) a scandal, which could be simply stated, and (3) engendered endless speculation. Diving for ratings? Clicks? Hits? Follow the formula. And, following the formula requires a production that will fit a predetermined narrative (remember we don’t really want surprises.) This situation, in turn, creates the vacuity of the national pundit/anchor shows.
Type A: The what you said then and what you say now inquiry. The late Tim Russert was a master at this form of vacuity. A politician’s statement from deep in the archives would be resurrected, printed out on the screen and then form the subject of “Why have you changed your position?” The question isn’t necessarily a bad one, IF the person answering the question is given sufficient time to respond, to explain why his or her beliefs have changed over time. However, the flip side of the coin is that the format, if carted along to its obvious conclusion, is that changing one’s position is a bad thing and demonstrates the weakness of a belief system. The unfortunate result is that the only people who end up looking good are the ones who’ve never changed their opinions – often in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Other than taking carved-in-stone objurgate positions never to be moved a millimeter, the only alternative is do take so many positions on an issue that the quotation resurrection process is flooded with diverse and often self-contradictory opinions; see Senators McCain and Paul who’ve been on every side of every possible issue.
Type B: In this model the question is posed with a pre-determined answer. “Senator Sludgepump, do you think the House Minority Leader’s proposal for increasing the minimum wage is a good one?” If Sludgepump is a member of the opposing political party, then of course he doesn’t believe it’s a good idea. For the sake of the example, let’s assume Sludgepump is opposed to increasing the minimum wage, and is only too willing to recite the talking points against the measure. What’s lost in this conversation? You’ve guessed it – it’s why the House Minority Leader supports an increase in the minimum wage in the first place.
Rather than truly offering both sides of an issue what the producers/anchors have accomplished is to offer the original idea, shorn of any context or background information, and to challenge it with the opposition’s argument complete with the appropriate talking points. There’s nothing “balanced” about this. For that matter, there really isn’t anything of much substance offered to the viewing public. There is, however, a pernicious element inserted into public discourse in which only the opposition (to just about anything) is given precedence over the affirmative.
Type C: This third type of format which abets the Perfect Story Formula is associated with the notion that human beings are herd animals. If the story doesn’t have a celebrity, or a hint of scandal, or doesn’t lend itself to endless speculation, then it will be spiked in favor of that which does have all the elements. The FACT that there is only ONE case of Ebola infection in the entire United States hasn’t discouraged the cable news channels from spouting off and encouraging that “endless speculation,” some of which has been downright loony. But, if one network is focused on it then we’d better believe that at some point they will all be staring at that same shiny object.
In this instance the producer will line up all the usual suspects: the opposition leader(s) who have criticisms of the administration or their opponents; the ‘experts’ in the field, albeit some with highly questionable credentials; and, the ‘analysts’ who will explain (interminably) what some bit of minutia means. What have we missed? We can use the Islamic State as an example.
Explaining the relationship of the Islamic State terrorists to other opposition groups in Syria is a complicated process; the mutations and permutations of the group are based in long simmering territorial, religious, and social disputes, some going back as far as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 19, 1916, and the diplomatic/military maneuvering during the First World War. Modern history isn’t any simpler. The migration of the Islamic State terrorists from Iraq to Syria and back to Iraq takes more than a twelve minute segment to explain. Since the story doesn’t fit neatly into the Celebrity + Scandal + Endless speculation formula, and can’t be explained succinctly in sound bytes, it probably won’t be explicated by any major network. The herd will continue to follow the shiny objects which are easier to explain.
The Type C, or follow the leader, Sunday show journalism – even if practiced on a Wednesday, has all manner of sources. Want to guess what Fox News will promote – see Drudge? Want to guess what NBC will promote? See the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post. And so it goes. The danger of playing following the leader is obvious. If the Leader goes after a dramatic, if trivial, story then the other media outlets must follow lest they be shamed by charges of “ignoring” important news. Thus the herd is rounded up, pointed in essentially the same direction, and those stories which truly affect people’s lives are demoted to the back pages and the “if it bleeds it leads” items head to the forefront.
We shouldn’t be surprised if this leads to endless palaver about the fizzling frantic ‘stories’ about Benghazi, Fast and Furious, the IRS or other attempts to create drama in the news room. The formula is perfectly suited to this kind of reporting.
If we put A, and B, and C together the fiction that we are getting important news from our broadcast and major media outlets should be starkly highlighted.
Therefore, the Pundits will be Plentiful on November 5, each and every one seeking to please the anchors and meet the expectations of the producers. They will be eager to speculate about Congressional leadership, anxious to speculate on matters of political priorities, and yearning to speculate about what these election returns mean for the next great Horse Race Season. What do all three of these have in common – Speculation. Endless Speculation. The final element in the perfect story formula.
Speculation is cheap. Any one of us can do it on a daily basis; we could probably keep it up for hours. Speculation doesn’t require much research beyond what’s necessary for the “show to run smoothly.” Speculation doesn’t require much background information, “just set up the question and let Senator Sludgepump or Representative Mudmire rattle on.” Speculation doesn’t require reporters on the ground doing journalism at the source. Reporters cost money, and shows can be produced more cheaply if there aren’t so many of them.
There are precious few news shows which aren’t so over-produced that relatively little information can be gleaned from them. Find them. Watch them. Support them. The rest can be safely ignored on National Ignore the Pundits Day.