What if we are leaving the Age of Reason far behind? What if the basic cultural settings that have under-girded the best of American journalism—a scientific mindset and respect for the pursuit of fact-based truth—are giving way to an era of faith and belief?
Pundits do not need to report a story to its factual roots. They begin with belief. With an ideological mission. Even religious faith. Conclusion precedes reporting. Reporting is ammunition, not illumination.
In a culture that prizes reason, punditry is a marginal journalistic player, a side dish to the facts. In a culture that prizes belief, punditry rules.
The economics of pundit journalism are, of course, seductive. Maybe irresistible. I host a radio show. News, interviews and listener call-in. Two hours a night, five nights a week. To produce the show with the values of traditional journalism requires a significant staff. To research issues. To marshal facts. To find and book informed voices and newsmakers around the world.
To fill those same two hours every night with the values of punditry requires, essentially, only the pundit. Maybe a few newspapers to rattle emphatically in the background. And an Internet connection to get the daily pundit feed from the ideological source of choice. Rant radio is cheap. And it is very popular. There has always been a good appetite for punditry. Thomas Paine and all the fiery pamphleteers knew that. But the appetite is clearly growing.
Why should that be? Maybe the popularity of punditry grows as America’s fundamental confidence or economic prospects are clouded. An expanding economic pie encourages expansive, open thinking. A shrinking pie encourages selfish thinking and an attitude of fact avoidance. Pundits feed both.
The long glow of the Age of Reason and a growing economy made traditional journalism relatively easy—a kind of natural outgrowth. An Age of Faith and uncertain economic prospects will make it hard. Reasoning, optimistic people needed the facts to act on abundant opportunity. Frightened people with a sense that the world is not going their way might, for a time, seek not facts but bucking up. Comfort. The solace of shared anger or denial. Pundits are good at those.
If we know all this, or suspect it might be true, why not simply resist it? Of course, many serious news outlets do and will. But the press does not operate in a vacuum. Its cultural environment matters.
I have come to think that the correct metaphor for the news media—not our ideal, or our best hours, but as it really is, over time—might have only intermittently to do with illumination. Day in and day out, it might have more to do with reflection. It is very often not a searchlight or headlight or torch, lighting the way ahead. It is instead a mirror. A mirror of society’s hopes and fears, of its obsessions and conceits and, even, its illusions.
For decades this worked, more or less. The public’s impulses were decent enough, and the press’s transcendent, illuminating moments were just frequent enough, that we got along. The rise of the pervasive punditocracy short-circuits this balance. Pundits relentlessly pump irate, intemperate, ideological opinion to their audiences. A vulnerable audience becomes colored with this poison. And the press—the media mirror—reflects the corruption.
My hometown radio station in the rural Midwest used to run endless local news reports, from zoning issues and school board votes right down to the news of whose cat was lost and who needed a used pressure cooker for canning. Now it is owned by a national chain, and Rush Limbaugh is its premier show. Rush’s billboard looms over the town’s main thoroughfare. When I go home, I can feel the tenor of the town changing. It is angrier and is developing a taste for more anger. For punditry.
I can imagine this changing. If serious news operations continue to show the way with serious journalism. If the political culture shifts to support real inquiry over partisan assertion. If long-term economic fundamentals are again seen to turn our way, or if tough reality smacks Americans awake to the need to be honestly informed rather than cosseted and jollied and affirmed in fierce belief.
But there is no guarantee of any of these things. So I do my show and thank my lucky stars to work on one of the serious islands in the stream. Good journalism is its own breakwater against a rising tide of blind faith over reason. But the water is still rising.
Tom Ashbrook, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, is host and managing editor of National Public Radio’s “On Point,” an evening news and interview show produced at WBUR Boston.