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How Punditry is Destroying U.S. Journalism and Democracy — And How to Fix It

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Cross-posted at Daily Kos

Despite all the bad influences on the U.S. media, there remain a large vestige of serious journalists doing excellent work. But their efforts are drowned out by the cacophony of often shamelessly demagogic punditry that now drives the media wagon.  

While true journalism has genuine, time-honored standards (getting the facts right, digging for the hidden truth, cultivating and respecting sources), punditry has absolutely none. Pundits have zero obligation to tell the truth, to make accurate predictions, to engage in any journalism of their own.

This has been proven as newspapers and TV stations have shown not the slightest interest in subjecting climate change-denying pundits like George Will and Charles Krauthammer to any discipline or pressure to get their facts straight. No, because all they’re doing is “expressing opinions.” And they clearly have been granted lifetime appointments, like Supreme Court Justices.

It’s complete amateur hour, yet it is now driving our media and political narratives. As star journalists are drawn to spend more time bloviating on cable TV than chasing down leads or writing stories, their work suffers, and the public debate is cheapened and made more frustrating and often worthless.

Meanwhile, the point-counterpoint model creates the impression that no problem is ever resolvable, since there are always two equal sides, and — of course — both are equally right and equally wrong. It’s no surprise that in such a situation so many Americans are left confused and disillusioned about their democracy.

As genuine journalism is shoved into the corners, and the professional shouters steal the spotlight, the media loses its role as the arbiter of truth, since today’s punditry has nothing to do with truth. Even worse, paid corporate interests take advantage of this situation and insert their stooges into the pundit’s chair, so that the media (wittingly or unwittingly) becomes simply the mouthpiece for corporate propaganda. A sector of public opinion becomes public corpinion, simply the ideas put in people’s heads to benefit particular industries’ profit margins.  

The example of this broken system that disturbs me most is what the media has done to the issue of climate change. Yes, there are fine journalists reporting on the truth of what’s happening with our climate, like Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post and Coral Davenport at the New York Times. And yet their work seems to disappear into a black hole amidst the endless phony debates pitting climate change deniers against those who follow the actual, demonstrated science.  

We’re all entitled to our own opinions on the climate, it seems. Except that we’re not, any more than we’re entitled to our own opinions on whether the earth revolves around the sun, whether E=mc2, or whether we can survive naked for long periods of time in 20 degree below zero temperatures. Facts are facts, regardless of what we want to believe. And the media’s obligation to report facts must trump its desire to broadcast every opinion under the sun.

Because frankly, not every viewpoint is valid.  Some are just ignorant or self-serving BS.

The Society of Professional Journalists has an admirable Code of Ethics based on four core principles:

– Seek truth and report it

– Minimize harm

– Act independently

– Be accountable

Are pundits held to any standards that remotely resemble such a code? The answer, quite clearly, is no. Well, it’s time to push our media outlets and associations to establish and follow such a code before irresponsible punditry wreaks any more havoc on the integrity of our public debate.  

Here are a few suggestions on where to start:

– Require fact checking for all opinion pieces. Where these pieces diverge from the facts, either refuse to release them, or at a minimum, add editors’ notes stating where the pundit is diverging from demonstrated facts (e.g., saying that the basic facts of climate change are in dispute when the work of 97% of the scientists in the field confirm these facts based on decades of replicated, peer-reviewed research.)

– Submit pundits to annual reviews based on the quality and accuracy of their work.

– Where pundits have made predictions, go back to review them and then publish success rates. (Dave Weigel of salon.com is one of the few pundits who actually does an annual column evaluating what he got right or wrong over the past year.)

– Choose pundits based on their actual expertise and skill sets, and when they stray into areas about which they have no knowledge, demand (and fund) actual reporting or research.  

I recognize that media companies choose and pay pundits to be loud and outrageous in order to drive ratings. But as with every industry, from banking to meat processing, when their laxity drives the public to demand some standards, they should feel pressure and an obligation to respond.  

Great commentators can drive our democracy forward, showing where we need to fix wrongs and improve our system. In order to return to a time when that will again be possible, we need to dial down the noise and turn up the quality of American punditry.  

  • …I’d just add one more crucial thing the media isn’t doing now, and needs to do if they’re going to top misleading the public and regain a bit of their lost credibility. First, check this out:

    Oil Covered Pundits: Media Fails To Disclose Guests’ Industry Affiliation 94 Percent Of The Time

    Major news companies have been giving a platform for fossil fuel-backed “experts” to pen arguments against clean energy without disclosing the author’s connections to the industry, a new study from the Checks and Balances project finds.

    Across sixty major news outlets, in the course of five years, the group found that major publications only disclosed oil industry ties six percent of the time, even when the authors represented organizations that receive hundreds of thousands – sometimes millions – of dollars from oil big wigs like the Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil.

    Often times, papers identified the authors by other terms, including “conservative” or “libertarian,” but without any disclosure of the funders…

    That needs to change IMMEDIATELY. The media needs to fully disclose the affiliations of its authors, and also the people it quotes/cites in articles, such as that they or their institutes/”think tanks”/etc. are funded by fossil fuel interests. Same thing on other issues – from health care to tax policy to everything else: the media should tell readers, viewers and listeners EXACTLY who pays the “experts” and pundits they cite, feature, etc. They should also make it crystal clear that those people’s views need to be taken with appropriate grains (pillars?) of salt, accordingly. Right now, almost none of that is happening, and the public is generally not aware of this egregious situation.