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Opinion: Punditry isn’t even journalism

November 1st, 2011 Posted in Opinion

By Stephen Worthington

Editor’s Note: This is the winning entry in the 2011 McCarthey Family Foundation essay competition, which addressed the question, Is a pundit the ultimate independent journalist?

A political pundit is not “the ultimate independent journalist.” In fact, punditry as currently practiced in the United States is not even journalism.

• Related Story: USU essayists win statewide contest

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism outlines nine principles of journalism. The statement asserts that excellent journalists present the news in a comprehensive and proportional manner. Modern pundits make no effort to maintain this standard, so their commentary cannot be considered exemplary, or even acceptable, as journalism.

“The failure of punditry to meet the standards of journalism
is not surprising, given the lack of training in journalistic methods and ethics
exhibited by many pundits. The most demagogic commentary is usually offered
by pundits who are the least versed in journalism.”

Punditry in the United States is ideologically driven. The primary objective of most pundits is to increase the number or devotion of their followers by appealing to their audience’s extant emotions and beliefs. In effect, “pundit” has become synonymous with “demagogue.” The Committee of Concerned Journalists holds that “inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative” makes social analysis unreliable, and unsuitable as journalism. Pundits frequently engage in all of these dishonest behaviors in order to advance their ideological or commercial agendas.

For instance, on July 26, 2011, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly claimed that the United States is “bankrupting itself” by spending “untold trillions” fighting poverty, only for the poverty rate to increase since 1965. O’Reilly’s statement is harmfully misleading.

The current figure is significantly lower than the 1959 rate. Additionally, efforts to combat poverty over the last forty years have focused on specific subgroups, such as African Americans and the elderly. The reduction of poverty is even more dramatic when examining the targeted subgroups. O’Reilly’s analysis, rather than presenting information comprehensively, obscures ideas in order to promote his ideological opposition to entitlement programs. This is not good journalism.

The failure of punditry to meet the standards of journalism is not surprising, given the lack of training in journalistic methods and ethics exhibited by many pundits. The most demagogic commentary is usually offered by pundits who are the least versed in journalism. For instance, some pundits may have expertise in law, political science or public policy, such as Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow, but their sensational rhetoric does not meet the standards of true journalism.

Some political pundits engage in commentary despite lacking expertise in journalism or politics. Liberal pundits Alan Colmes and Bill Maher both transitioned to punditry from stand-up comedy. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh both shifted to conservative punditry from careers as radio disc jockeys. Some analysts even blur the line between pundit and politician by actively pursuing elected office before, during, or after their careers as analysts, such as Al Franken and Sarah Palin. While it may be difficult to differentiate between commentary and campaigning when deciphering the discourse of such demagogues, their words can be easily excluded from at least one classification: Journalism.

While plenty of commentators adhere to all the principles of journalism in their analyses, their contributions to punditry are eclipsed by the sensationalism of their demagogic colleagues. As a result, the meaning of punditry no longer lines up with the standards and practices of journalism.

TP

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