Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Pundit Power Myth

I like Glenn Greenwald, so much so that he’s one of the very few bloggers that I get his RSS feed sent directly to my inbox. He’s got some great analysis, and I almost kind of see him as the straight-laced version of myself. You know, if I was a lot more humorless and square, and didn’t have so much fun insulting people. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, as sincerity and squareness can be admirable qualities, in moderation.

But, he’s not one of the infallible bloggers like Josh Marshall and Digby (and myself), and I too often have nits, both small and large, to pick with what he writes. And today (now yesterday, as I took too long writing this) I’ve found one of those nits, and it’s big enough for me to bother writing about.

He was writing about pundits, and starts off saying “More than anything else, I believe political opinion is shaped by what Americans hear from the pundits and so-called "political experts" who pompously parade across their television screens (and, to a lesser extent, their newspaper pages) and opine with such certainty from their perch of elevated wisdom.”

Now, maybe that’s how things look from the ivory towers of his east-coast domain (or wherever he resides), but here in Texas, TV pundits have about as much influence on what regular people think as a bat turd at a monkey convention. And Glenn totally confirms that point by referencing a silly conversation with uber-spinner Dick Morris on Hannity & Colmes regarding the North Korean nuke test, and how it was going to be the issue for the upcoming election; and then says how they were totally wrong and that nobody cared about it.

Flock of Pundits

Specifically, Greenwald writes:
The North Korean story lasted all of 24 hours, if that. Not a single candidate talks about it other than in passing, at most.

Huh? But I thought that pundits like Morris, Hannity, and Fox’s biggest punchline, Colmes were extremely influential and the “backbone of American political dialogue.” So how could all their pimping of the North Korean nuke test not have influenced anything?

Because it never really does. The primary influence that the pundits have is on other pundits, the news media, and through them, our politicians. They’re the ones obsessed with what these dopes say. They’re the ones who repeat what the talkers are saying. Watching the pundits and national media is like watching a flock of birds flying in pattern. They all fly in almost perfect unison behind the lead bird, while occasionally another bird takes the lead position and they all start following him. And yet, none of those birds could influence anything outside their flock to join in. I’ve watched that kind of thing on many occasions, and never once thought to join them; and I feel the same way on the few occasions I’ve watched CNN.

But it’s primarily through the influence of straight-news journalists and the politicians that these people have any influence. This stuff can knock politicians off their stride if reporters keep asking them about it, and get them to focus on issues that nobody but the news establishment cares about, and that kind of stuff can filter down to the people. But almost nobody is really influenced directly by the pundits except the other pundits.

Hell, just recently, our pop-alternative radio station started playing a recorded segment of their lame-ass morning DJ’s making fun of Bush, and I find that to be quite a bit more influential and significant for American politics than what your typical pundit says on CNN or Fox. As they say, all politics are local, and when the watered-down, non-political DJ’s start on an anti-Bush riff that the station feels confident in replaying throughout the day, you know something’s in the air.

Impeachment Politics

And their only real ace is to get a politician to say or do something so incredibly stupid or wrong that it finally filters through to the regular people. It’s not about influencing people, but about influencing the politicians to screw-up, and then busting them. That’s how the impeachments of Nixon and Clinton came about. Few people cared about Nixon’s crimes until the heat kept on enough that Nixon had to start addressing the issue publicly, and stonewalling, and firing attorney generals, and all that. But Nixon made it a national issue that eventually brought him down.

And same with Clinton. He lied about an event that most Americans couldn’t care about, and the Republicans caught him in that lie. And where as most Americans became concerned with Nixon’s abuses, Clinton’s never really did catch-on with people. No matter that the pundits had been against him for years or saw his crimes as being some of the worst in presidential history, the average American didn’t care and supported Clinton.

And that’s not necessarily to second-guess Nixon or Clinton. At the time of their offense, it had to seem like the most sensible policy to continue to cover-up what they had done; and they had both viewed the attacks against them as an unfair witch-hunt by their accusers.

And regardless of the pundits’ influence, Americans couldn’t support Nixon any longer or find huge fault with Clinton. Things came down exactly as they should have, and in the case of Clinton, in spite of the best efforts of the pundit class. They may have been outraged how Clinton had trashed their town, but the rest of America already thought the place was pretty trashy when he got there.

Under the Radar

And with all “scandals” that get these people screeching like monkeys, the best technique is to ignore it as much as possible, defuse what you can, and weather the storm without admitting guilt or fueling it further. And the more it gets under your skin, the more it’s likely to continue heating up and causing you to do something stupid for which you need to resign, be fired, or get impeached. So it’s simply about minimizing the controversy until something bigger finally pops up to distract the monkeys.

But the key is never doing anything that will catch traction with the American people, as that’s when you’re really screwed. Pundits can make journalists ask embarrassing questions, but it’s the voters you need to stay under the radar of. And that’s why Nixon and Bush will generally be reviled by history, while Reagan and Clinton will be seen in much kinder light; despite a general propensity by all four of them of being surrounded by controversy.

Because only the insiders and partisans even really knew what Reagan or Clinton did wrong, and while people will largely stay ignorant of the details of Watergate or the Iraq debacle, the general impression will stay quite negative. Bush had stayed under that radar for awhile (thanks to the complicit pundit class), but he’s now been a top target for a growing number of people since before his re-election. And all regardless of the cover-up by the pundits and Washington press corps for Bush’s failures and deceptions.

How it Works

And frankly, not that many people watch CNN, Fox or the other cable news networks, or read the newspapers; and far fewer are likely to actually be influenced by the opinions they hear on the shows. In a well-timed coincidence for my post, I just saw that Fox News, who is still leading the cable news war, had a total viewership last year of 1.3 million. I’m assuming that’s a daily average or something, I don’t know. But whatever it is, that’s not a particularly high number compared with the adult population of our country. And again, those are the total viewers tuning into Fox, and not necessarily the number of folks influenced by their pundits.

And I think what has a much bigger influence on the real world is what’s actually happening in the real world. Or more specifically, what arguments can be used to explain and debate what’s happening in the real world. Pundits might have some influence on those arguments, but in the end, the arguments have to be there. They have to appeal to people. And they have to be convincing enough to people chatting around their dinner tables, water coolers, church potlucks, and local taverns.

Because that’s where this stuff is won or loss. Not on television or the editorial page, but in people’s daily dealings. And it all comes down to, when you’re in conversation and debate, do you like the position you’re standing on? Do you have a good offensive stance against your regular debate foes? Or if you’re stuck on the defense, do you have a convincing one? Will it sound decent to the less decided spectators? Or do you sound totally full of shit? That’s what this is all about. That’s how this works. It’s all about shoring up your side with a good arsenal of argument points, and keeping your opponent off-guard and unsure. That’s what people want in their political leaders, and what influences them. They want something to be proud of, even if that’s just a negative attack on the other guy.

Inventing Fables

And pundits just can’t invent that stuff. It’s like inventing urban legends, fables, or jokes. Sure, you can do it. But there’s got to be a strain of thought within your audience for it to work. Republicans didn’t give a flip about terrorism in the 90’s, so they didn’t even try those arguments. But after we got attacked on 9/11, they were all-terrorism, all the time; because that’s what sold. That became their overall talking point: About how Republicans were tough against terror and Dems weren’t.

And that fit into things that people already thought. Not that Republicans were tough on terror, but that they were the tough national security people who want to go balls-out to protect people. And so it had a credible beginning and Republicans were deft at adding to that story to further the idea that we needed their help to protect us from an enemy that they never really cared about and still don’t.

And the main point is that pundits and politicians didn’t invent that. They took advantage of it and perhaps did some small part in furthering it, but it was already there. Going back for decades, Republicans were the tough-guy daddies, and Democrats were the coddling mothers. Republicans would fend off the evil, and Democrats would take care of you at home. That’s what people have thought for a long, long time, and no amount of pundit spin could change that. The best they could do is to include it in their talking points and to analyze every situation though those goggles.

And things are only now changing because it’s become so painfully obvious that the Republicans are totally failing to protect us. And every time they run another terrorist-bogeyman commercial, they’re just reminding us of their continued failure. Imagine liberals running ads about welfare queens and how this is evidence that people need us to expand our welfare programs, and you’ll see what I mean.

Wall of Noise

And seriously, have you ever been convinced by a pundit? Of course not. They’re either telling you what you already think (Paul Krugman and James Carville), or you’re shaking your head in disgust (almost every other pundit). And that’s the way it is with almost everyone. People aren’t looking to be influenced. They just want some more talking points to shore up their side, and even that group is a fairly small minority. It might seem like a larger group if the only people you talk politics to are as much politics as most bloggers are.

But for most Americans, television pundits and daily political stories are like living next door to a concert arena. You might hear the loudest snippets of music, but you’re unlikely to catch most of the show. Or perhaps the right analogy is living next door to a bickering couple. But whatever it is, they’re not getting it and they don’t even care. Like with the Kerry "botched joke" thing. The news networks may have gone wall-to-wall with it for a few days, but it really never gained traction with most people, as it was such a totally asinine issue.

And all this is to say that pundits aren’t magicians. They can’t invent arguments. Their spin isn’t omnipotent. And their influence is fairly negligible in the long run, because the people most likely to watch them and be influenced are also most likely to already have fully formed opinions which aren’t likely to shift. Short of an earth-shattering event, like 9/11, or the horrors in Iraq, people who watch the news already care and they know what they care about; and the rest of the people only see the bigger trends that happen to pass through the wall of noise. But the day-to-day events are largely missed, even by people who consider themselves to be politically-minded. And the biggest effect that the blowhard pundits have is in their own minds and wallets.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

I'm not convinced. Pundits at best are a reflection of conventional wisdom. To that extent, they do damage to us on a range of issues.

They create the premise for the questions. So while we in the reality based community know Democrats have far more sane ideas for fighting terrorism, we still see Democrats largely appearing with pundits to defend their record on terrorism.

In a trial, the accused is either guilty or "not guilty" - generally the best you can do is avoid conviction, but there will always be a bunch of people in the gallery, not to mention several jurors and possibly the judge himself who thought you were guilty.

Democrats are always defending themselves from accusations of tax-raising (As if that were a crime), being soft on terror, crime, drugs and having zany ideas on guns or women's rights or helping the poor.

It isn't so much that any individual talking point that convinces anyone, but the cumulative effect of the environment they create. One where true liberals are afraid to speak out against the death penalty, or for gay-marriage, or proudly being members of the ACLU or for legalizing marijuana and a host of liberal issues where we're on the defensive.

In their world, Nancy Pelosi is part of the "extreme liberal wing" of the "Democrat Party" - if she's extreme they've obviously never met people who reject using deodourant and abstain from ever using money or want major industries nationalized. There are left-wing radicals out there, and none of them are in the elected portion of the national Democratic Party that I know of.

I can think of a few examples where the punditocracy altered events:

- Dean's scream and his sudden loss of credibility as a "serious" candidate. The pundits could have laughed at that once, or they could have talked endlessly about it and how it would make dean a joke. Guess which they chose?

- the portrayal of Gore as a liar/serial exaggerator. Any pundit would know that Gore actually did have a substantial role in creating the internet. Anyone smart enough to put on a suit and talk on TV could read what Gore said and realize he wasn't claiming to have personally invented TCP/IP or Ethernet or something. Yet this myth of Gore as deceptive pervaded.

- the equivalency myth. Anyone paying attention knows that the Republicans have all the serious corruption problems, especially all the systemic ones - particularly Abramoff's racket. Yet pundits feel obliged to point out Jefferson (D-LA) as some proof of Democratic equivalency in corruption. They ignore that he's one guy, and that Pelosi stripped him of his ways-and-means seat, while Republicans have closed ranks around every single one of their corrupt officials until they actually confess or get convicted.

There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem in that it's hard to tell when the pundits create these memes and when they just reflect them. I think that either way, even when they're just echoing nonsense they heard somewhere else, they're prolonging it and giving it self-referential credibility.

Watch, and wait for post-election analysese about how many seats Democrats didn't win because of Kerry's joke or because Pelosi is "too liberal" or some shit. Watch for them to repeat the new republican spin about how 6 year elections are always bad for the Presidential party and losing 30 in the house, 6 in the senate is just par-for-the-course and not a rejection of republicans or Bush.

No, I hold you in the same esteem I do Greenwald, but I'm with him on this one.