The Crisis in Punditland

There is a crisis in punditland.

Look at the 2012 race (I know you’re sick of it, but bear with me): The predictions the pundits dished out were served up a la Morning Joe (“This race is a dead heat! It’s simply too close to call”) or a la Megyn Kelly (“Romney will win in a landslide!”).

The MJ-style punditry is superficial: It’s clear that polls indicate a favorite, but in the interests of hedging bets, the pundit equivocates.

The MK-style punditry is baseless: It’s clear that the polls don’t support the claim, but it doesn’t matter so long as they show conviction and use nebulous campaign-narrative clichés like “momentum” and “game changers.”

Truth and information are all well and good, but to a media conglomerate that wants to stay competitive, good journalism is ancillary to panache. Celebrity talking heads that don’t know what they’re talking about, but act cocksure like they do—now there’s a business model.

So, such is punditry as we know it. But change may be afoot, thanks to two forces currently at play.

For starters, there’s the Nate Silver paradigm. Much has been made of the affable statistician and that witchdoctory he touts (it’s called math, I think). His rigorous models, based on poll data analysis, are dead-on when it comes to election predictions—a far cry from the gut-calls and cherry-picked rationales typified by Morning Joe and Megyn Kelly.

And in a post-Moneyball society, people listen when the statisticians start talking.

Consider news coverage on the morning after Obama’s re-election: There were almost as many headlines about Silver’s Electoral College projection as there were about the election itself.

In time, as Silver continues to get things right and pundits continue to get things wrong, I foresee less tolerance for wishy-washy commentary and a higher demand for talking heads to cut the crap and give their reportage a little more due diligence.

Even better (and admittedly, this may border on wishful thinking), if good statistics make speculation on campaign performance irrelevant, there will be less horse race coverage and more attention paid to candidates’ platforms.

The other force that could impact punditry for the better is that the election results have prompted an impromptu institutional review on the part of the GOP, which includes an inspection of the mother ship of punditry, the conservative media.

The likes of Newt Gingrich and Commentary editor John Podhoretz readily admit that the conservative media was an echo chamber at its worst. Every rightwing pundit and their mother called it for Romney, and scoffed at the “skewed data” used by “idealogues” like Silver. Hence, the collective shock and denial from the right -- and the top-notch TV it made for -- when Obama easily snagged the win.

But there’s an even bigger problem with the conservative media: It perpetuates an image of the GOP as the “party of dumb,” to borrow a phrase used by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal -- not that he’s in any position to criticize.

Republicans are associated with the birther movement, bigoted and sexist rhetoric, science bashing, misinformation, paranoia, and poor policy.

And the poster children for these icky associations are the lovely people on Fox & Friends, Hannity and Limbaugh.

As Slate’s Allison Benedikt astutely observes, what is good for the ratings of Fox and its conservative counterparts is bad for Republicans. And I can’t wait to see what happens when the GOP comes to this sober realization.

Will the GOP confront Fox, et al, and have them choose between garnering high ratings with entertaining vitriol, or changing tune in order to enter the reality-based community?

While Herman Cain becoming president is more likely than punditry ditching its entertainment value, at least with Nate Silver in the game and the Republican Party on the sidelines, there is a chance for more reasonable commentary in punditland.

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