I recently made a surprising discovery. Meandering through the blogosphere, I perused fellow liberals’ objections to statements of right-wing pundits, and the subsequent responses of conservatives. At first glance these would seem to be perfectly ordinary events, just the latest round of political mis-course. However, a closer look revealed to me that something essential has changed, something that must be recognized: Punditry is dead.
The signs of lifelessness are clear enough. As I wrote this post last evening, CBS’s 60 Minutes was running a profile segment on Stephen Colbert, the ascendantly popular satirist of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. In his pose as a self-important conservative talking head Colbert cuts a scythe-stroke through the very image of the Fox News-style punditry, exposing its hypocritical, mendacious underpinnings in all their ridiculousness.
Correspondingly, pundits have taken the deadly misstep of responding to their satirical detractors. A recent episode of The O’Reilly Factor contained the following exchange:
GERALDO RIVERA: You know, Comedy Central is now a big hit, Stewart and the Colbert guy.
O’REILLY: Yeah, they do OK. They do OK.
RIVERA: They make a living putting on video of old ladies slipping on ice and people laughing. That’s their life. That’s their life. They exist in a small little place where they count for nothing. The history will be made by those who have affirmative thoughts, who make, you know, innovative suggestions in life and are inclusive.
When you lob “Stewart and the Colbert guy” a comedic softball like that, they don’t miss it.
Comedians have not been the only voices pointing out Punditry’s status as an emporer without clothes. Not long ago I remarked upon the recent work of Geoff Nunberg, who inventoried contemporary pundits’ collective bag of tricks. An acting teacher with whom I studied some years ago used that same phrase, “bag of tricks,” to describe the tendency of bad actors to rely on gimmicky personal flourishes when playing a scene, as opposed to making a choice that seeks the human truth in the character. Just as hack actors do, pundits seek to draw attention to themselves – “Look at me – pretty good one, huh?” – rather than to discover the truth of the given subject matter. Also applicable to both is their audience’s inevitable realization that the pony only knows so many tricks. Indeed, Coulter, Hannity, Limbaugh, O’Reilly (and yes, Al Franken on the other ideological end of things) all rely on the same essential gambit of petty provocation; the only difference is how each of them pronounce it. The act has gotten old, and their artifice is showing. Punditry occupies the place in political journalism that professional wrestling does in sports – that of a show business replica passing itself off as the genuine article.
The demise of the pundit, however dramatic, is nevertheless the result of what we generally term “natural causes.” Pundits hitched their credibility to the fortunes of their champion, President Bush, the failure of whose administration left them with a lose-lose dilemma: Standing by their man, Tammy Wynnette-style, means sharing in the slings and arrows of 30% job approval. The alternative of jumping off before the ship goes down leaves the pundits on the receiving end of their own pejorative favorites, e.g. “flip-flopper,” “cut and run,” etc. Most appear to be choosing the former, which may indeed be the better option. Still, it is no easy maneuver to edge yourself away from an increasingly lame duck and simultaneously maintain support for his core policies. Particularly when the policies in question have resulted in colossal messes – military, financial, diplomatic and otherwise. Long after George W. has retired to his porch rocker in Texas and resumed whittling, the rest of America, pundits included, will still be responsible for the cleanup. My experience in such situations has been that those who cheered loudest for the original mess-making are not looked upon fondly when mops and toilet brushes come out.
The defibrillator has been turned off. It’s over. The PR monkeys will surely issue the standard denials, and they may be able to manufacture a momentary public uncertainty (perhaps long enough for Ann Coulter to get her resume posted on Monster). At this early moment, of course no word has been issued regarding services or funeral proceedings. I assume that they will be open to the public, although for my part I’m not sure I’ll attend. I will, however, make sure to be at the wake.
- Probably Not Jesus’s Dog