TV's pundits: often wrong, rarely repentant

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They have titles like former federal prosecutor, retired US Army major, administration official, and just plain commentator.

As TV pundits, they parse the headlines after their glory days as newsmakers. For the often out-of-touch public, they offer perspective on the news that spills from the television set in a torrent.

Their sage analysis of the day's events makes the news consumer feel in the know, if not knowledgeable, about America's business.

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The problem is they are often wrong - and even more often unrepentant.

From ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson's prediction after the Lewinsky scandal broke that President Clinton would resign "perhaps this week" to the legion of military experts who insisted the air campaign alone would not be sufficient in Kosovo, the collective batting average for pundits these days is lower than that of the hapless Florida Marlins.

"Many get a sense of feeling like insiders when they watch them," says Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University. "But they are a poor surrogate for an informed public life."

Indeed, the punditry not only failed to foresee Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's capitulation, but it also was wrong in insisting it would never happen unless NATO sent in tens of thousands of ground troops. "The 24-hour pundits who opined on it were totally wrong," US policymaker James Dobbins said with some satisfaction recently.

"Had we listened to those who said negotiate, partition, cut a deal, stop the bombing,... the Serbian forces would still be in Kosovo, and NATO would be in tatters," Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware wrote in an opinion column.

While Senator Biden admits to having been an armchair general during the Gulf War, few have acknowledged that their analysis of the Kosovo conflict was wrong.

The danger in it all, say pundit watchers, is the ability of commentators to create flawed conventional wisdom that affects public opinion.

"TV, in particular, causes commentators to project a false sense of sureness," says Rich Noyes, editor of the Internet site Newswatch.org at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

Mr. Noyes points to several recent incorrect predictions: that Republicans would gain seats in last November's elections, and that Mr. Clinton would be impeached over the Lewinsky affair.

"My concern is, why do we need all of this punditry? What void is it trying to fill?" Noyes asks.

Punditry critics direct their harshest words at journalists and commentators who have become all-purpose experts, saving less-harsh judgments for former government or military officials attempting to give firsthand understanding of the day's events.

In a quest for accountability, media-watchdog magazine Brill's Content focuses on the Sunday morning talk-show hosts who lace questions with opinion. For roughly six months, the publication has tracked predictions made by commentators.

"You never hear George Will saying, 'I made a prediction four months ago and it wasn't true,' " says Michael Colton, senior writer at Brill's Content. "People have short attention spans, and a lot of the predictions are long term. And it's not like [viewers] are sitting there taking notes."

For the most recent issue, Mr. Colton drove to New Jersey, where a chimpanzee was made to answer yes and no questions on a range of news topics. The magazine reported that Chippy the chimp scored a .500 average, while Mr. Will in recent months has scored .333. Attempts to reach Will were unsuccessful, but a secretary who learned of the experiment disapproved.

"They're comparing him to a chimpanzee? How very rude!" she said.

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