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It's time to thin the pundit herd

2012 was a bad year for the pundit class.

We were sold a number of narratives that were false — the supposed backlash against Obama’s Bain Capital attacks; the idea that Romney’s “momentum” surged for weeks, not days, after the first debate; that the polling was so close it had everyone scratching their heads, and finally, that Mitt Romney would win in a landslide — by people who should have known better.

In truth, opinions are like armpits — everyone has them, and most of them stink. You’d think that the talking heads who hold prominent newspaper columns and do regular appearances on cable television would have a better grasp of politics than those of us who live far from the Belly of the Beast, that Washington/New York corridor. But what this election showed is that their guess is just about as good as yours. (And worse, if you read 538 or Real Clear Politics.)

For liberals, the 2012 election will stand as proof that numerically-based approaches are preferable to the gut-feelings approach of pundits like Dick Morris and Peggy Noonan, both of whom predicted gloom-and-doom for Obama, both of whom are still wiping egg off their faces.

For conservatives, the election’s result, which came as a surprise to a good many people, even at the highest levels of the Romney campaign, should stand as proof that the right-wing media is no longer seeking or publishing truth, but rather selling wolf tickets.

This goes beyond gut-feeling journalism into something altogether more cynical — telling people what they want to hear, just to keep the doors open and the clicks coming.

Remember Baghdad Bob? The guy who, even as Iraq burned all around him, was insistent that Saddam Hussein’s army was winning the war? Pundits who predicted a runaway Romney victory, on the flimsy basis of yard signs (Noonan) or on the assumption that the polls were skewed against him (even Team Romney believed this, so you can’t blame pundits too much), were the Baghdad Bobs of our time. And they should be viewed in the same light — entertaining, maybe, but not useful.

(Does this mean every pundit who was wrong should be thrown off the boat? Of course not. Focus more on approach than results. Slate’s Dave Weigel, for instance, predicted a Romney victory, but based it on extensive interviews with American voters in many states, not on “his gut” or on what TV producers wanted to hear. And he hasn’t lost a whit of credibility.)

We would be well-served to demand a new pundit class by the time 2016 rolls around. We need more like Nate Silver, who brought calm to a seemingly turbulent election season, and fewer like Morris.

I’m sick of it. You are too, probably. So here are a few considerations to keep in mind when deciding whether a pundit is still worth your time.

1. Do they believe what they’re saying? Or are they carrying water? Dis-ingenuousness should always be a disqualifier when considering a pundit’s value. While it is a serious, and often untrue, charge that a writer is being paid specifically to say what a certain party wants, we don’t often talk about the flip side of the pundit game: Saying what people want to hear and being rewarded for it with speaking engagements. As Dick Morris has shown, at Fox News, it doesn’t matter how wrong you are, so long as you’re wrong in the right way.

Election season, at many media outlets, becomes what I call “the age of Aquarius,”as carrying water for the Red or Blue “team” is viewed as more important than challenging both teams to do better. Taking a particular side is fine — I’ve worked most of my career on the opinion side of journalism and find it more honest than taking The View From Nowhere — but acting as an Aquarian is not.

2. Are they part of the Church of the Savvy? Does the pundit assign the same weight to spin as they do to facts? After the debates, was the pundit breaking down the contest like it was a fashion show — Was Romney too aggressive? Did Joe Biden smile too much? — or did they check the facts and call out misleading statements? In short, does the pundit accept politics as it is, or push for politics as it should be? Are they speaking truth to power, or admiring the savvy of the powerful in doing what’s necessary — even when that means lying — to grasp or maintain power?

3. Consider the sourcing. Does the pundit name his sources, or survive behind a veil of “top party officials” and “political insiders”? Some of the very best journalism depends on anonymity, but if a person is saying something noncontroversial without being named, one has to wonder if the source exists or, better, if it’s so illegitimate that the journalist doesn’t feel comfortable dropping the name. If I’m quoting my best friend, a “Democratic party observer” seems to carry more weight than “my best friend says…”

Take a look at this Dylan Byers (Politico) hit piece on Mr. 538, Nate Silver. Byers starts trolling from the jump by asking whether Silver would be a “one-term celebrity.” (Which seems to forget Silver’s pre-politics career analyzing baseball, a passion Silver used, today, unfortunately, to argue against Miguel Cabrera as American League MVP.)

Byers’ sources? Joe Scarborough, former Florida Congressman, now TV host, and David Brooks, a New York Times columnist. Neither is known for his use of numbers. Neither, as quoted, evinces any understanding of numbers. (I claim no great understanding of statistics, but even I know that saying someone is heavily favored still means the game can be close. Joe Scarborough, as portrayed in Byers’ article, does not.)

Byers could have called on statisticians, college professors or other people who do the statistical modeling Nate Silver does to bolster his case. Instead, he ran to people who were likely to uphold his pre-fabbed conclusions. Scarborough had just criticized Silver on his MSNBC show, “Morning Joe.” The inclusion of Brooks, a Silver colleague, was no doubt intended to produce the “Whoa, even people at the NYT doubt him!” effect.

If a pundit refuses to use the best source available, as Byers did, that’s a red flag.

4. Do they criticize their own team? To hear some people tell it, the Republican Party is the reason for the season. All the Democrats have done is saddled us with high taxes and more bloated government. When Republicans have done wrong, like a George W. Bush or a Mitt Romney, their sin was in trying to meet liberals in the middle.

We have a word for such people: Hacks. In American politics it takes two to tango. If a pundit finds all the fault with the other guys, and none with his own — for example, they ding Obama for his “failed leadership” since 2011, without noting the House GOP’s strategic and admitted obstructionism — he is no longer acting as a journalist but a flack for his favored political party.

We deserve a better class of pundit than we had in 2012. But we’ll never get it if we’re unwilling to turn the channel when known hacks start yacking.

In the comments below, I’d love to hear which voices you are voting off of Pundit Island — and why.

James Dickson edits The Politics Blogs.