I’m about to date myself, but I can remember when the only political pundits and commentators were the ones who had regular columns in the big regional newspapers – people like Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson, David Broder and George Will, who seems to have been around since g-d was a boy. I also remember when network news was the half-hour broadcast after the regional news every evening about 7pm, with two fifteen-minute blurbs on the weekends. Sundays gave us half an hour of Meet the Press, when a politico really did meet the press and get grilled by them, and another half hour of Face the Nation, when a different panel of pressmen (and, occasionally, a woman) did the same to another elected or appointed government official. The only real poltical opinon talk show was another half hour feature entitled Issues and Answers.
If the public wanted to respond to points raised by these various individuals, especially the political journalists who appeared in the print media, their only recourse was the good, old-fashioned Letter to the Editor of the paper in which the offending column appeared. If you were lucky, maybe your letter got published in the appropriate section. If not, you’d had your say and had to live with the assumption that the editorial department conveyed your opinions, along with those of other members of the public who’d taken the time to put pen to paper and write, to the journalist in question. Either way, unless the journalist addressed these opinions in another column, you got no feedback.
Nowadays, with the internet and social networking sites, more and more self-appointed political pundits are using this media, in addition to more traditonal forms, to spread their opinions to a wider audience. Further still, many double as “political contributors” to the various 24/7 cable news outlets. Like rock and film stars of old, these people have accumulated a devoted following, and some have reached near iconic status.
This past week, I learned a couple of things.
First, I learned that this deviant form of the Fourth Estate is a closed shop which closes rank and protects its own ferociously. I’m not surprised by that. Most professions do form a protective shield around any of their own who seem to be attacked from without. Police, firefighters, teachers, doctors … it’s common practice to look after your own. And any from within those ranks who whistle blow or take the side of the accusing outsider are given pretty short shrift from their own within their profession.
Earlier this week, David Sirota and Ed Schultz engaged in a shrieking session with each other on Sirota’s radio program, the likes of which made Rush Limbaugh look positively polite. Sirota was peeved because Schultz had, a week earlier on his television program, castigated Michael Moore for his reactions to the shooting of Osama bin Laden. In Sirota’s opinion, Schultz had crossed the loyalty line in telling Moore, as Sirota perceived, to STFU and get in line behind the President.
Let me say that I have no particular liking for either Sirota or Schultz as political commentators of any realiability. Both, in my opinion, have done more than enough in the past to alienate and divide the Left, and both have a reputation for being, at times, openly rude and disdainful towards the public to whom they’ve given an opportunity to interact directly with them. But I happened to see the segment on Schultz’s show where he took issue with Moore.
Unusually for Schultz, he was unfailingly polite in his disagreement, moreso than he would have been, had Moore’s sentiments been uttered by either Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. Then you would have heard bullish comments, snark and a lot of ad hominem. Because Moore was from the same side of the political coin, Schultz treated the matter with great respect, offering kudos to Moore as a great voice from the Left and giving him credit for his work regarding the health and financial industries.
Ed simply thought that at this point, regarding bin Laden, it might be helpful to present a united front. Yes, he did call for the liberal hand-wringing to stop, but because the Right, ever the opportunists, would cherrypick any and all opposition and use it in the up-coming campaign to present the Left and the Democrats as a party, hopelessly riven by division and, because of this, weakened by it. After all, it was the first Republican President, Lincoln, who reiterated that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
So Sirota took this and spun it, inviting Ed onto his show as a telephone guest, and asked him about the legality of bin Laden’s killing. And then proceeded to engage in a screaming contest, when Schultz began by saying that the Attorney General had said that the killing had been legal under the circumstances. The exchange became, quite honestly, incomprehensible, until the point that Schultz told Sirota to go to hell, and Sirota cut the mic in order to gloat. When he opened the microphone a few seconds later, Schultz had hung up.
Sirota’s gloating point was that the Attorney General was an appointee of the Administration, so he probably would be complicent in upholding bin Laden’s killing. I don’t know how Schultz could have elaborated on his point, because he was never given the opportunity, once he’d expressed his original opinion. I don’t know if he were planning on pointing out as well that a State Department attorney had also expressed an opinion on the legality of the Seals’ actions, or if – more importantly and independently of any association with the Obama administration – ex-Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens had publically declared bin Laden’s killing to be perfectly legal under the circumstances.
We’ll never know, because Sirota managed to shut Schultz the fuck up in exactly the same way he’d accused Schultz of attempting to do to Moore – albeit he did manage to level the accusation directly to Schultz of being turning on one of his own kind. And then Sirota was back the next day, same time and same station, chest beating like an Alpha male, bragging about out-bullying a bully. Suffice it to say, that all the ensuing calls in the phone-in were those selected who were favourable to Sirota’s handling of the incident.
So the first lesson learned is that the gentlemen and ladies of political punditry don’t disagree with those who purport to be from the same side of the political blanket. Fair enough.
But some of these people punt their wares on social networking sites, inviting comments on their latest opinion blogs, and some of them respond to the comments. That’s fair enough too, as long as these high-profiled and high-principled people remember that the public responding might be people who like and admire their work immensely, but at times, they might disagree with a particular point or opinion. In this regard, some self-appointed pundits have proven to be remarkably thin-skinned.
One, allegedly, has compiled an enemies’ list of bloggers and commentators on the internet, most ordinary people who don’t blog for money, who’ve been critical of continuous barrage of unfounded criticism he’s levelled at the current President. This same pundit has acquired a reputation for sock puppetry, showing up in various guises (but always with the same IP address) on his critics’ blogs, to level ad hominem remarks about what they’ve written.
The normally sensible Joan Walsh has literally imbedded herself in an ongoing argument with African American bloggers on Twitter after one lady politely sought to correct Joan in her assumption that Progressives made up the base of Obama’s support. The lady on Twitter was correct: Progressives do not make up the base, either of the President’s support or that of the Democratic party. If they are the base of the party, it’s a pretty shifty one at that, when any accomplishment by the President or the party is disdained and scorned. The argument progressed until Walsh rather tactlessly admitted resentment that African Americans should consider themselves the base of support for the President, and it’s continued from there, to the point where, last Sunday night, one of the bloggers in question was engaged in a discussion with someone else, and Walsh waded in, uninvited, and turned the discussion into one concerning, yes, race, again.
Walsh is known, both on her Facebook page and on Twitter, to meet anyone disagreeing with her point of view with the cleverly unfunny advice to the commentator to “get help.” In one of the recent Twitter exchanges with the African American bloggers, she uttered to one that “it must suck to be you.”
Really, this is the stuff of high school girls, but that doesn’t detract from its rudeness.
These people are paid professionals with high public profiles. If they are going to allow an exchange of ideas with the reading, listening or viewing public, then they have to show themselves above criticism and meet it in an adult and professional manner. And that doesn’t mean, as Walsh went on to brag to a crony on Twitter after the Sunday night encounter, “punching down.”
Social networking sites are great equalisers, if the personality in question invites comment in which he or she participates. Why do it and then pull rank against people who are, at best, internet ghosts? Or maybe that’s why it’s done, because these entities are faceless, nameless ephemera.
The political pundit class, which seems to be reproducing itself at an alarming rate lately, has done a remarkable job on the Left, in incessantly urging, encouraging and promoting criticism of this President and his Administration. The old cry of “holding his feet to the fire” has become gratuitous. We’re asked to fall in line behind the pundit of our choice and carry his or her banner, worship at his altar, even defend all criticism of the chosen one against any critique levelled with the ferocity with which we would defend a slight to the honour and person of a close relative, friend or loved one.
That was the second lesson learned this week: that whilst it’s perfectly permissable to criticize a President from our party ceaselessly and unremorselessly, we daren’t criticize the punditry. It’s they, you see, who’ve taken on the thankless task of speaking for us lesser mortals. How many times have I heard people say that this one or that one is “our voice,” how we need them and how missed they’d be if they weren’t about? And how many times are we deceived, such as when Arianna Huffington made the middle class her pet cause and pushed the meme that the Obama Administration was totally against them, on the back of Huffington Post’s unpaid labour policy? In the wake of Ed Schultz’s recent praise of the President, how many remember him urging Progressives not to vote in the Midterms? How many remember Glenn Greenwald’s 2006 anti-immigration blog or that he writes for the Koch-founded and funded Cato Institute?
Back in the days of Anderson and Broder, when Huntley and Brinkley and wise Uncle Walter gave us thirty minutes of the top news each evening, where were the voices who spoke for us then? They were in our minds, and they bore fruition at the ballot box.
I guess rude pundits are the fashion of the day, but I’ve never been one to follow fashion.