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Off with the talking heads

To my dismay, it has taken broadcast news very little relative time at all to lose sight of itself. Once dry, informative broadcasts delivered clinically from a man reading the best bits of the national newspaper, now the "news" is itself a produ...

To my dismay, it has taken broadcast news very little relative time at all to lose sight of itself. Once dry, informative broadcasts delivered clinically from a man reading the best bits of the national newspaper, now the "news" is itself a production, itself a drama and show.

The way the news packages itself baffles me. It's so flashy, I feel like a patronizing adult is jingling keys in front of my face. This is what you like, right? This will get your attention, right?
But what really gets our attention are the "talking heads"-the pundits. These are what people really tune in for. It's the "analysis." It's the "debate." It's the "commentary."

It's the problem.

Pundits today occupy a very unusual position, in that they appear to be almost, but not entirely, complete charlatans.

To clarify, a "pundit" is, by rote definition, an expert in something called upon to share their expert opinion with the public. The notion was, of course, that a newsman might tell you what's going on, but he's not particularly capable of explaining its significance or elaborating its impact. In my world, this expert would simply be another source whom I find-there is no purpose to pundits in newspapers, beyond possibly the op-ed page.

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But in television, pundits have become the purpose of the news, and this is very alarming to me because I think this is an invitation to confusion. When you turn on the television and you see a man in a suit and tie speaking authoritatively about an important topic, you're like to assume that he's somehow also a news reporter, anchor or a journalist of some degree. This simple misunderstanding has caused some pundits to really be elevated far beyond the purpose of their position. We now expect that there be no distinction made between the news anchor and the analyst. The line has been so thoroughly blurred that, as far as I'm concerned, it no longer in practice even exists. On top of that, how on earth can you possibly know if this so-called expert is even that?

This is made all the worse by the fact that if you actually, genuinely want an expert opinion or analysis on anything, you could truly pick no worse possible venue to air that opinion than a television news program.

The television brings in pundits with the same attitude you approach to organizing a choir. You want to find a voice for each octave, you'll need a bass and tenor and alto and soprano; you'll want to try and get a "variety" of voices so that you present the appearance of a balanced debate. Indeed, it is the manifestation of the marketplace of ideas-except you have to hear everyone's idea at once, as they shout over one another to try and get their sound bite heard before they have to cut to the next commercial.

It gives me a damned headache to look at these programs. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, it's like they all follow the same playbook, and that playbook is pundits on offense, pundits on defense, and talk show hosts on the special teams. The news takes a back seat to the analysis and the analysis is strident, disorganized-and questionable.

I do not think that we have been trained, socially, to disseminate supposed expert opinions. We are not educated enough, broadly, to recognize half truths or lies, particularly if they are presented skillfully. Yet the chaos in my temporal lobe filters such distortion-in other words, I have a keen instinct to recognize bullcrap when I smell it.

And something's really begun to stink.

Experts are not objective. Reporters are falling away from that as well, but pundits are not even expected to maintain an objective attitude. Their expertise may be valid, but that doesn't mean they are going to put that knowledge to the "pure" task of educating you, the viewer. They want to convince you-a member of the voting public and thus quite literally the most important person in a democratic society-to side with their particular point of view, because most areas of expertise-industry, business and politics-can benefit from public support.

Your hearts and minds are being fought over, live on television. Truth is irrelevant-persuasion is power. If the television news is no longer interested in informing you, but rather convincing you, it has ceased to become news and has become propaganda.

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I don't like propaganda. I don't like being told what to think. I don't like to think that we, as a society, are slowly losing our ability to tell the difference.

The word "pundit" comes from India, not unlike much of human knowledge, and it was a word that meant a learned person-an advisor to a king, more often than not. I can think of nothing more dangerous than bad advice.

The Book of Job agrees with me. Job's collection of friends all play the pundit for him, as he struggles to understand why God is upturning his life despite all his virtue. In the end, he hears many talking points-but only one voice of authority, who silences all the others, and chastises them for deigning to think they can fathom the mind of the Almighty.

Yet there are no absolute authorities here in the realm of mortals, certainly not over truth. There comes no voice from within the whirlwind. It falls to you, and to us, to see that we do not darken our counsel with words without knowledge. Job's pundits are found to be without merit, and there should lie example to all of us.

It is time to turn off the talking heads-and in the quiet which follows, maybe we can finally hear the truth.

Opinion by Iain Woessner
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