The Perilous Punditocracy
A look at the absurd pronouncements of the political class from Salon's Glenn Greenwald. Why do pundits get to be wrong all the time?From the May/June 2008 issue of The National Interest.
THE RECORD of the American pundit class with regard to the 2008 presidential election can be summarized in one word: wrong. For the last twelve months, political journalists in unison have created and then imposed countless predictive narratives onto their "news" coverage of the campaign, narratives which have repeatedly turned out to be completely inaccurate. Yet they never learn their lesson, are never held accountable and virtually never acknowledge their errors. Political punditry is the ultimate accountability-free profession.
It is not merely opinionists who have spun these predictive tales, but so-called straight reporters as well. Indeed, dominating the media's news coverage of presidential campaigns are claims about what is likely to happen in the future. Rather than focusing on the candidates' records, the validity of their positions or the truth of their factual assertions, political election coverage instead is obsessed primarily with the question of who is likely to win and lose. Like most fortune-tellers, reporters' fixation on predictive narratives has left a virtually unbroken string of humiliating errors.
Throughout all of 2007, without a single vote having been cast, two themes dominated the media's coverage of the race. First, Hillary Clinton's nomination was essentially inevitable; her lead in the polls was insurmountable, and her organizational strength rendered her invulnerable to any challenges. Second, John McCain's candidacy was over, killed by campaign mismanagement, conservative anger over his immigration stance, independent resentment over his support for the "surge," a lack of funds and Rudy Giuliani's bulging popular lead.
Yet suddenly, by the end of January 2008, after just a few weeks of voting in a handful of small states, Barack Obama and John McCain were declared to be the all-but-certain nominees. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were but failed afterthoughts. Within a matter of a few short weeks, the yearlong pundit script was instantaneously rewritten-just scrapped-with barely any acknowledgment that it ever existed.
Coddled, well-compensated national journalists view elections as a fun game-something about which they gossip with one another, constantly reinforcing their own groupthink biases-but not as anything that truly matters. By stark contrast, the average voter, faced with increasing economic insecurity and concerns over a whole variety of pressing problems, actually believes that important matters are at stake, that the outcome of elections can profoundly affect their futures and their families. It is little wonder that reporters are so woefully inept at predicting the voting behavior of people with whom they have virtually nothing in common.
The vast gap between the prevailing journalistic narrative and reality has extended to virtually every predictive story line, large and small, and encompasses everything from foreign- and domestic-policy debates to national elections. A favorite tactic with virtually every pundit is to take whatever their own personal opinion happens to be, preface it with the phrase "Americans believe" or "most Americans think," and then appoint themselves Spokesman for the American People. Even worse, while they cast themselves as the mouthpiece of the Silent, Noble American Majority, it just so happens that "Americans" now overwhelmingly reject their belief system.
Mr. David Brooks of the New York Times is an especially prominent pundit who favors this tactic. In one such moment where he channeled the voice of the "American People," Brooks proclaimed that their greatest hope was to continue to rule the world-and particularly the Middle East-with the United States' mighty, dominant military power:
Americans are having a debate about how to proceed in Iraq, but we are not having a strategic debate about retracting American power and influence. What's most important about this debate is what doesn't need to be said. No major American leader doubts that America must remain, as Dean Acheson put it, the locomotive of the world. . . .
This is not a country looking to avoid entangling alliances. This is not a country renouncing the threat of force. This is not a country looking to come home again. The Iraq syndrome is over before it even had a chance to begin.
So, according to Brooks, this is just "another chapter in [America's] long expansionist story." And think twice if you presume the Iraq experience is going to prevent a U.S. attack on Iran. Americans still crave the "dominant role in the world."
But let us not be fooled into thinking he really speaks for the American people. Oddly enough, there's a way to find out. It's called "polling data." I can happily point out that we hear nary a whisper of these facts in Brooks's piece and his oft-repeated claims about what Americans think are purely false. Neoconservative fantasies aside, military adventures are increasingly repudiated by Americans. A Pew poll of early February 2006 states: