Are Pundits Really Useless?

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Ben Cohen
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rush-limbaugh-pointing

Completely useless opinion Completely useless opinion

Nate Silver speaking at Google DC:

I don't want to totally lump reporters and pundits in together," Silver said. "It's kind of venial sins versus cardinal sins basically ... where reporting is very, very important and journalism is very, very important, and there are some things about campaign coverage that I might critique. Whereas punditry is fundamentally useless.

Broadly speaking I agree with Nate. The modern news media is made up most of opinion these days - it's cheaper to do (real journalism is extremely expensive), and far more popular. The election cycle is a brilliant example of punditry gone mad. Every halfway decent speaker seems to get a slot on TV or Radio to air their opinion on who they think is running a better campaign, which poll is most reliable and who has the better wardrobe/hair stylist. The incessant chatter is completely useless and one big money making racket.

But then there are different types of punditry, and some of it can be useful and on occasion as important as on the ground reporting. Opinion is important if it is substantiated with facts. Good pundits take time to know what they are talking about and should help provide context on a particular issue. For example, it's all very well having a report about poverty in America, but understanding the historical context behind it and possible ramifications can affect public opinion and help change the debate on how it is tackled. That is the job of a pundit - or at least a good one. There's a big difference between a Rush Limbaugh and an Andrew Sullivan. Limbaugh provides entertainment opinion based on knee jerk reaction, whereas Sullivan provides incredibly insightful and substantiated opinion built on years of immersion in political culture and in depth research. The more complex and nuanced the pundit, the better a perspective they bring to the endlessly confusing world of politics. And that is still invaluable.

I'd also argue that what Nate Silver does it, in the scheme of things, completely useless too. He's a brilliant statistician and a pretty good writer, but he can only tell you who is going to win and who is going to lose. Silver provides no context in his analysis, no cultural insight and little in the way of original reporting. He simply takes numbers from different polls and does his own calculations as to what the most reliable outcome might be. It's very interesting, but he's not exactly breaking news stories or helping the public understand complicated social and political issues. Because Silver is a pundit too - just one with stats to back up his assertions.