The point of pundits

THE POINT OF PUNDITS…. Ezra Klein had an interesting item yesterday on the role political pundits play on television.

Political scientists have studied pundit predictions and found them to be, on the overall, inaccurate. Indeed, the effect gets stronger as the pundit becomes more popular: “the better known the pundit, the less accurate his or her forecasts.”

But all this suggests that political punditry has something to do with accuracy. It doesn’t. It’s entertainment. Just like people who like sports want to be able to watch TV shows about sports and people who like women in bikinis want to be able to watch TV shows about women in bikinis, people who like politics want to be able to watch TV shows about politics. The pundits exist to fill that need. Their role is to make those shows entertaining, so the shows have good ratings, so they can sell time for advertisers, so they can make a profit for networks.

That sounds about right. On-air pundits who are always wrong, but also always entertaining, will have lengthy and lucrative careers. That’s the reality of the business.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The way I see it, in a perfect world, political pundits on television would be the on-air equivalents of newspaper columnists. Just as a newspaper has beat reporters to report on events or launch investigations, it also has columnists to help “make sense of it all,” not only informing an audience, but giving readers a sense of context and perspective.

Pundits, at least in theory, serve a similar role. Networks have anchors, reporters, and correspondents to tell the viewing audience what happened, and then have pundits to offer insights. These are folks who’ve looked at the same story the audience has, but they’ve thought of angles the audience hasn’t considered, adding depth to our understanding of the news.

When this dynamic works, pundits’ expertise is worth seeking out. When I watch Rachel Maddow or Paul Krugman give their takes on politics, I feel like I’m actually learning something, which is rare when it comes to television news.

Which is why it bugs me that there are no consequences for pundits who are consistently misguided. Using Ezra’s analogy, imagine a sports commentator whose predictions are always wrong, whose rumors never pan out, and whose observations aren’t based on reality. After a while, one would hope, the audience would stop taking that commentator seriously, and he/she would go away.

But that rarely happens with political pundits. It’s annoying.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.