During an online chat with Washington Post media reporter and CNN talk show host Howard Kurtz on Monday, an alert reader from Pennington, New Jersey asked, “Why do we keep having people who were wrong on Iraq giving advice on TV? MTP this week had a politician and two Times
columnists who have been consistently wrong. Why not have Russ Feingold, Paul Krugman, and Bob Herbert who were and still are right?” Kurtz did not seem to think it was an important or interesting question. He replied, “If you banned pundits or politicians who were wrong about something from further TV appearances, the newscasts and talk shows would have a near-impossible time finding guests.”
A truer answer might have gone something like this:
Part of the reason is that most political talk shows—both the Sunday morning and weeknight variety—are pretty risk adverse. In other words, the safer and closer to the punditocracy’s center-right consensus the guest is, the more likely they are to be invited back. In the month of December alone, Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” featured such cozily familiar names as David Gergen, (twice), Ed Rogers (twice), Kate O’Beirne (three times), Bob Shrum, Margaret Carlson, Dan Bartlett, and Chris Cillizza (twice). Note all those repeat performances in the span of less than three weeks out of a pool of literally hundreds of reporters, politicians, advisors, aides, and pontificators that the producers have to choose from.
It’s worthwhile to remember a report that Media Matters released back in February that showed that not only are the usual suspects trotted out again and again, but the number of people eligible is even smaller then one might think.
The study looked at the booking choices of ABC’s “This Week,” CBS’ “Face the Nation,” and NBC’s “Meet the Press” during President Clinton’s second term, George W. Bush’s first term, and 2005. The balance between “Democrats/progressives and Republicans/conservatives was roughly equal during Clinton’s second term, with a slight edge toward Republicans/conservatives: 52 percent of the ideologically identifiable guests were from the right, and 48 percent were from the left. But in Bush’s first term, Republicans/ conservatives held a dramatic advantage, outnumbering Democrats/progressives by 58 percent to 42 percent. In 2005, the figures were an identical 58 percent to 42 percent.”
This goes to show that who shows book as guests has only a nominal connection to who is newsworthy, or who has the most intelligent things to say. Rather, it’s a game of familiarity and comfort, and when it comes down to making the choice of who to book, the field is slanted toward conservative voices. The last thing that producers ask before booking guests is whether the quality of their analysis justifies their repeat performance.
Literally no one has been more consistently wrong about Iraq than Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol. Remember, for instance, these prewar gems:
(with Robert Kagan): “No one disputes the nature of the threat…Nor is there any doubt that, after September 11, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction pose a kind of danger to us that we hadn’t grasped before.”
“Reconstructing Iraq may prove to be a less difficult task than the challenge of building a viable state in Afghanistan,”
“a U.S. invasion would inspire “the principles of liberty and justice in the Islamic world” generally.”
And yet not only is Kristol ubiquitous on the talk-show circuit, Time magazine just added him—together with Michael Kinsley and Walter Isaacson—to its stable of liberal hating columnists.
Kristol’s example may be extreme, but it represents the norm rather than the exception. The marketability of pundits who were wrong about Iraq—whose false assertions and faulty analysts helped mislead the nation into a ruinous war—has not suffered at all.
Amazingly, Richard Cohen of The Washington Post thinks that being wrong about Iraq is a kind of presidential character reference. He writes of Sen. Joe Biden, who after Sen. John McCain is the single most invited guest on the Sunday shows, “Even on Iraq, an area where too many Democrats forgot that there was any reason for war, Biden took a decidedly centrist—and defensible—position. He voted to authorize the president to go to war but has since characterized that vote as “a mistake.” The idea that anyone who was not mistaken might have known something that neither man did then—and might again today—is simply not worth considering.
And Iraq is not the only topic where the “better wrong like us” rule holds for political punditry. If one set of issues united the Democrats in the 2006 election, it was economic populism and impatience with the consensus position on so-called “free trade.” As John Judis wrote in The New Republic, “They advocated fair trade, not free trade, and promised to reform the North American Free Trade Agreement.” And yet aside from the recently converted Lou Dobbs, this position is considered akin to leoprosy in the punditocracy.
Even the liberal talk show hosts like Kinsley, Krugman, and Kristof mock trade reform as the equivalent of Flat-Earthism. And even in the week following the massive election victory, NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the unquestioned leader on Sunday, invited pundit faves Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman—neither one of whom had participated in the biggest story of not only the week, but the year.
Subsequent weeks have shown a similar bias toward those who were wrong about the war and out of touch with the rest of the nation on economics. And contrary to Kurtz’s claim, there are plenty of pundits and reporters whose analysis of Iraq has been borne out by events. Try, for starters, Gen. Anthony Zinni, Scott Ritter, James Fallows, Walter Pincus, Frank Rich, Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman, Garry Wills, John Judis and Spencer Ackerman, Rick Hertzberg, Seymour Hersh, Jeffrey Sachs, Ann Marie Slaughter, Stanley Hoffmann, Tony Judt, Harold Meyerson, E. J. Dionne, the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder, most of the editorial staff of The American Prospect, The Nation, Salon, In These Times, Mother Jones, hundreds of Democratic congressmen and congresswomen, etc., etc. For reasons of space and memory failings, I am only scratching the surface.
The problem is not, as Kurtz and the punditocracy consensus would have it that no one knew; it’s that they knew no one who knew—and that problem remains with us today.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” recently moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/