Monday, January 18, 2010

Another Excellent Article From A Different Author

The Damage Done by Pundits
By Brian Davis

In a country that elects its own government, politics often take center stage in the minds of the voting populace. Staying informed of the day’s important political issues used to be as easy as sitting down to breakfast with the daily newspaper, but since the internet has made news available literally at its breaking moment, the reality that printed media is often old news has begun to set in. As technology continues to bolster the speed and ease of communication, our society bombards voters with information from every angle, at every waking (and sometimes even sleeping) second. More and more people are getting their news through television and internet-based sources, but in doing so, they run into the issue of information overload. The near-limitless deluge of information available online, coupled with the vast array of competing television news networks providing it, often leaves voters without a clear grasp of events or how they relate to the political system. A unique brand of media figure has thus risen to prominence by offering a solution to this problem, in the form of biased journalistic commentary: the political pundit.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines a pundit as “a person who has or professes to have great learning; actual or self-professed authority” (Websters). This definition accurately describes America’s political commentators, individuals such as Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann who host radio or television programs professing to sift through the endless sea of news and provide the audience with the cream of the crop, the barebones “truth” that they must know to be responsible citizens. In theory this certainly provides the populace with a useful service. The sheer breadth of information available to Americans is daunting to say the least, and having someone to separate the fact from the fiction, the important from the inconsequential, the real news from everything else, is a comforting prospect. Practically every major news outlet counts at least one pundit among its list of employees. On the television news networks we see Rachel Maddow, Keith Olberman and Chris Matthews providing commentary for the left-leaning MSNBC network. The conservative FOX News network features opinions from Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, who all host radio shows in addition to their FOX television programs. Even print-media has its pundits; conservative commentator George Will has been writing for The Washington Post and Newsweek for decades, and op-ed columnist Paul Krugman is a regular liberal voice for The New York Times. Both men’s work is now readily available in timely online format. So not only do Americans have a staggering number of options for getting news, they can now choose to have someone else make sense of it for them. In essence, many Americans are allowing pundits to shape their opinions, because they trust that the pundit’s opinion is more valid than their own. It must be noted, however, that not all pundits are created equal.

Some pundits, such as Krugman and Will, satisfy the positive side of the word “pundit.” These individuals have earned the right to opine and be taken seriously (Krugman is a Nobel prize-winning economist, Will a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist), but the sad reality is that credible punditry culls far less revenue than does sensation and spectacle. By far the clearest illustration of this fact is the success of Glenn Beck; though he has no post-high school education or experience in politics (i.e. credibility), Beck has nonetheless been able to transform his identity from a radio disc jockey into one of the most controversial political commentators of our time. He has done this by appealing to the unfounded fears and prejudices of his audience. As more people tune into his programs and are told exactly what they want to hear (whether it’s true or not), the ratings for his shows go up, and more ad revenue is generated, thus funding the continuation of the cycle. Although FOX calls his show an opinion program, many of Beck’s viewers believe his biased commentary to be serious objective journalism, and his actions, on and off the air, serve only to strengthen this belief. Beck and the pundits like him who peddle irresponsible information do so at the cost of a reasonable political discourse in America, and therefore at the cost of the American people.

One organization that has recognized and publicized Beck’s glaring inaccuracies and hypocrisies is the National Council of Teachers of English, who honored Beck with their 2009 Doublespeak Award. According to the NCTE website, the Doublespeak Award “is an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered” (NCTE). Some examples of Beck’s doublespeak cited by the NCTE include his recent trumpeted opposition to reforming our health care system (despite the fact that he vehemently admonished it just a year ago after experiencing complications with a minor surgery), and his call for Americans to act like we did in the days following 9/11, a call that loses its impact when brought forth by a man who said he was sick of hearing from the families of 9/11 victims (NCTE). This kind of blatant conflict in Beck’s opinion is either unnoticed or ignored by his faithful viewers, who are content to simply take him at face value and trust that what he says must be credible and of vital importance (especially when it’s screamed at them so loudly).

In addition to making unabashedly hypocritical statements, Beck is also guilty of spreading distinctly anti-government propaganda. A 2009 report by the Anti-Defamation League observes that Beck has referred his radio listeners to Mein Kampf as a metaphor for the Obama administration’s health care reform efforts, and that he told the viewers of a FOX News program that he “could not debunk the theory” that FEMA was secretly building concentration camps to hold dissidents (ADL). This is a flagrant example of pandering to the baseless fears of his audience. Most members of the groups calling themselves “tea party” protesters (who made many public appearances and media headlines this past year while brandishing placards bearing images of President Obama defaced to resemble such figures as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Joker, and a voodoo witch doctor, among others) are adamant fans of Beck’s programs. These people genuinely fear doomsday actions that have not been taken, or even remotely considered, by a government that is a laughably distant cry from the totalitarian regime they believe it to be. By bolstering the completely false notion that our government is trying to implement socialism, communism, or fascism (not to mention reinforcing the gross misconception that these terms mean the same thing), Beck is not only adding fuel to fire of bigots and extremists, he is also willfully contributing to the ongoing ignorance of the people who put their trust in him. Not everyone, however, is convinced that Beck or any of the other political pundits are truly making a difference.

In his October 2009 op-ed piece for The New York Times, journalist David Brooks argues that the talk jocks like Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh possess no real power over the political process, and that these media figures are people “who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche” (Brooks). He describes how none of these conservative commentators supported John McCain in the 2007 Republican primaries, some even going so far as “hurling abuse at McCain and everybody ever associated with him” (Brooks). Despite the best efforts of these supposedly powerful political pundits, none of the candidates they supported succeeded in their campaigns, and McCain won the Republican nomination unimpeded by the talk jocks’ scorn. Brooks goes on to describe how Limbaugh called upon his listeners to register as Democrats for the primaries in an effort to damage Obama by voting for Hillary Clinton. The number of new Democrats registered and data from the voter turnout both suggest that few people, if any, did as Limbaugh so passionately requested. Brooks contends that while Limbaugh and the other pundits may be very powerful in terms of ratings and advertising revenue, their power does not transfer into the reality of putting candidates in office and passing legislation. Perhaps not surprisingly, Glenn Beck may prove to be the exception to this rule.

Reporting for The New York Times in November of 2009, Brian Stelter said that Beck “wants to go beyond broadcasting his opinions and start rallying his political base — formerly known as his audience — to take action” (Stelter). Beck is in the midst of organizing a national tour of seminars to promote his books and his brand, to reinforce the political values he espouses on his programs, and to instruct his followers in how to take action. “You’re going to learn about finance. You’re going to learn about community organizing. You’re going to learn everything we need to know if you want to be a politician,” said Beck in reference to the conventions (qtd. in Stelter). Stelter explains that many conservatives, especially those who identify with anti-government sentiments, are looking for someone to rally under but are finding nobody in the wounded Republican party to lead them. The conservative talk jocks are thus happy to fill the void and provide a voice that the disaffected can call their own. Beck has heeded their call and fully intends to inspire them into action, though what that action will consist of (besides the obvious opposition of the current administration and all its policies) remains to be seen. What is certain is that by hosting seminars that openly attempt to indoctrinate people into his methods and thought processes, Beck is doing much more than simply broadcasting his opinion. Niche or not, Beck is intent on transforming his ratings into votes, be they votes for candidates who share his so-called values, or the values of his corporate sponsors.

Beck is taking gullible people who are generally well meaning and robbing them of their sense of reason. He may actually believe the fallacies he so passionately proclaims, or he may only profess what produces the most profit, but in either case, the losers are the American people. Though most newspapers and networks have their observable biases, the media still has a fundamental responsibility to at least be factual in what they report. A political pundit, as a person who is paid to provide a credible opinion on factual reporting, has that same responsibility. Beck and the pundits like him who distort the facts to better support their opinions are not only doing a tremendous disservice to the intellectual quality of American political debate, they are also doing real damage to the potential of American life. Put simply, a person who sincerely believes that President Obama is a Marxist dictator cannot, under any circumstances, be reasoned with in any meaningful way, and Beck and his ilk have capitalized by encouraging these people to believe that their unreasonable fears are true.

There is an old saying that warns to “never doubt the power of stupid people in large numbers.” It is uncertain whether Beck is acutely aware of this fact and taking advantage of it, or if he just happens to be one of those people. Either way, the threat that an organized mob of grossly misinformed and inconsolably angry people (who absolutely refuse to be reasoned with) may take action in America looms right around the corner. There is no point in having a debate when one of the debaters has no comprehension of the issue, but this nonetheless remains exactly the scenario that Beck and the talk jocks seek to perpetuate. They boost their ratings by misleading the gullible and allowing them to believe in a reality that is completely fabricated. One wonders what good could come from granting power to those who base their actions on wild, unsubstantiated fears of totalitarian rule, but the pundits are eager to embolden them. Like lemmings following one another off a cliff, Beck, Limbaugh and the gang are leading their audiences into a dark, dumb future. When debates on matters of state become unrelated arguments of values, we all lose. When an honest representation of the facts is forsaken in favor of capturing the minds of a few more angry morons, we all lose. When baseless accusations and prejudiced opinions are presented as journalism, we all lose. When irresponsible pundits like Glenn Beck are given a platform to pander and perform, we all lose. Let us hope that they, not us, are the next ones to lose.

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