The Perilous Punditocracy

April 23, 2008 Topic: Society

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.

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:

When President Bush delivered a strong warning against isolationism in Tuesday's State of the Union address, he was speaking to a recent and dramatic turn in public opinion. A recent Pew Research survey found a decided revival of isolationist sentiment among the public, to levels not seen since [the] post-Cold War 1990s and the post-Vietnam 1970s. Moreover, one of the main pillars of Bush's argument in favor of global engagement-the need to promote democracy around the world-has not struck a chord with the public. Support for that objective has been consistently tepid, even among members of Bush's own party.

Particularly, the idea that the United States should topple foreign governments and "spread freedom" is pretty much as marginalized as you can get:

Of thirteen foreign policy priorities tested in Pew's October [2005] survey, "promoting democracy in other nations" came in dead last. . . . And in contrast with public opinion on most foreign policy questions these days, there is no partisan divide-Republicans and Democrats agree. . . .

We see an offshoot of this phenomenon with the venerable Howard Kurtz of CNN/Washington Post, who has a tendency to recycle stories from the right-wing blogosphere, passing them off as what America needs to know. With what seems to be a little jig, he recites the emerging Beltway wisdom that-gasp!-we just might be winning in Iraq. And that just might hurt the Democrats in the election.

But hope against Howard-Kurtz hope, people just don't seem to be changing their minds. Yet again, polling data released a couple of days after Kurtz's article of November 6, 2007, this time from CNN, showed that overall, 68 percent of Americans were opposed to the war in Iraq-a new record. And again devastating to Brooks's point, 63 percent opposed air strikes on Iran. That number jumped up to 73 when we talk about adding ground troops to a military adventure.

But Brooks, Kurtz, the Politico's Jim VandeHei, David Broder and Shailagh Murray at the Washington Post, and others still promise that this is all going to work out. Pundits like these love to pretend that they are free of political opinion and bias and instead masquerade as Spokesmen for the People, attributing to those People the views which the pundits themselves harbor but will not acknowledge. Time and again, this self-centered, self-referential method for opining about political matters produces claims and predictions which are dead wrong.

And these relentlessly inaccurate predictions were unending in the weeks prior to the first nationwide vote, the January 3 Iowa caucus; polls almost unanimously showed an increasingly large lead for the former GOP governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. For months, the press had ignored Huckabee as an irrelevant also-ran, and the surge of support reflected by these polls-coming from the state's large evangelical voter block-was predicted by virtually none of the pundits.

As Huckabee's increased polling strength brought him more media attention, he committed a series of what journalists refer to as "gaffes"-mistakes that, in the eyes of the pundit class, reflected what a terribly unsophisticated candidate he was, a mere "rookie" unfamiliar with the time-tested Beltway rules for how a candidate should behave. Each time Huckabee violated one of their sacred principles, journalists insisted with great certainty that the latest gaffe would harm Hucakabee's prospects in Iowa. Yet Huckabee's lead continued to grow as a result of the evangelical voters who were completely indifferent to the petty insider mistakes on which the pundit class was so fixated.

Huckabee's most scorn-inducing "mistake" occurred during a late-December press conference held just before the Iowa caucus. He announced his campaign had produced a negative ad aimed at his rival, Mitt Romney, but that he, Huckabee, had insisted it not be used. Nonetheless, Huckabee showed the ad to reporters then and there-a move which journalists covering the Iowa race, with virtual unanimity, condemned as a nakedly cynical and unsophisticated ploy to reap the benefits of quashing a negative ad while, at the same time, ensuring its circulation by showing it to reporters at the press conference.

To the oh-so-knowing national press, this process mistake was not merely embarrassing, but would be fatal to Huckabee's campaign. One after the next-like a flock of birds parroting each other-they pronounced Huckabee's campaign mortally wounded by this grave error.