When pundits agree
Bob Somerby, Capital Style, April 2000
LIKE ALL COMMITTED POLITICAL JUNKIES, I'm looking forward to
the general election this fall. We'll thrill to the give and take
of debate, with a wide variety of brilliant insights from Washington's
Yeah. Right. Sure. As if! Actually, if recent history is any
guide, nothing like that will ever happen. At one time, our pundits
were famous for free-wheeling debate. But it isn't that way any
It was early in the primaries when I noticed: talking heads
all seem to say the same things. And not just every now and thenthey
seemed to say the same things all the time. What had happened
to the arguments, the tantrums, the attacks? Something was definitely
Soon after, I got a chance to explore Pundit Culture up-close-and-personal.
I was invited to perform at the Washington Improv, as guest comedian
at their "Funniest Celebrity in Washington" contest.
I'd worked this event for the previous two years, dazzling crowds
with my charm and my wit. And since Washington's celebrity journalists,
to their credit, volunteer each year for this charity outing,
some of the pundits we see every week would be on hand this very
Warning: One thing had changed from previous years, which might
make the night a bit awkward. I now was engaged in a daring new
ventureI publish a web site critiquing the media. And some of
the same scribes I'd been reviewing were going to be right there
at the contest! Time's Margaret Carlson would be a judge,
for example. And I'd been razzing her for at least several weeks.
Would the evening be awkward? I didn't have a clue. It isn't
like anyone ever reads my web site. But at any rate, I'd
have a rare chancea chance to observe major scribes in the wild.
Maybe I could solve my latest riddle: Why do pundits all seem
IT ALL STARTED at the first Democratic debate in New Hampshire,
matching Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Within 48 hours, everyone knew
what had happened. Gore had been "programmed to relax,"
but instead had seemed manic. Bradley seemed authentic, presidential.
And because the pundits all agreed on the story they'd tell, they
fought to see who could tell it more colorfully. Journalists battled
tooth and claw, trying to make the tale better.
Sameness? If you own a TV or read a newspaper, you encountered
the views I describe. Elizabeth Arnold, on Washington Week
in Review, two nights after the October 27 forum:
I would say that Vice President Gore was so determined to
appear relaxed and connect with the people that he was practically
leaping off the stage for personal details of the questioners'
Those were the press corps' two basic conceptsGore was "determined
to relax," but seemed hyper. Mary McGrory, in Sunday's Post,
had noticed the very same things:
Gore has been programmed to relax, which is still a reach
for him...He demonstrated hyper-animation, quizzing the questioners,
asking them about their children, walking to the front of the
Even that! To the front of the stage! Howard Fineman, on MSNBC,
the very night of the forum:
What I saw was a guy, namely Al Gore, trying very hard to
be relaxed, and doing it, as Lisa [Myers] said, even if in a
mechanical, Al Gore way.
Talk about your beta males (and females)! A string of pundits
stood in line to say the same things about Gore. And just how
manic had Gore's conduct been? "Practically leaping off the
stage" was for starters. David Brooks, on the NewsHour:
Al Gore struck mehe took the focus group viagra...Somebody
compared him to an animal that has been chained up and they let
That "somebody" had been Jacob Weisberg, in Slate:
Gore arrived on stage like some sort of feral animal who had
been locked in a small cage and fed on nothing but focus groups
for several days. Upon release, he began to scamper furiously
in every direction.
Gail Collins (New York Times) saw that too:
Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat, and when he
tries to look animated he practically crashes into the wallboard...He
bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher
for more homework.
To Collins, Gore was "overstimulated," a nod to McGrory's
"hyper-animated." I hadn't seen this many people all
say the same thing since I last saw the tape of that big Moonie
wedding. Over and over, scribes said the same things. That's what
happens When Pundits Agree.
IS THERE SOMETHING UNUSUAL about all this agreement? Not at
allit's the norm in the press corps. Throughout the primaries,
we saw it again and again. Everyone knew that McCain was straight-shooting
(though he plainly flip-flopped on several issues). Everyone knew
Gore was distorting Bradley's health plan (clear examples were
a bit hard to come by). Everyone knew Bradley was above the fray
(till he started attacking Gore every day). And when George W
ran into that nasty pop quiz? Everyone said they wouldn't know
that stuff, either.
But is it wrong or troubling when pundits agree? Actually,
it probably should be. Given human nature, this kind of uniformity
rarely occurs without some group dynamic. If a hundred pundits
had watched Gore and Bradley from a hundred soundproof rooms,
there's no chance that they all would have thought the same thing.
And it's a basic no-brainer which we all understand: diversity
of viewpoint is good for democracy. Stronger ideas crowd out the
weaker when a variety of viewpoints all get expressed. It really
should be a troubling thing, to see so many pundits all
say the same thing. It suggests that the strength which comes
from open discussion is being traded away deep inside Pundit Culture.
WHEN I GET TO THE IMPROV, I go to the showroom to check out
who's already there. Team Molinari is in the house, prepping for
Susan's silver medal performance. Former champ Matt Cooper, now
with Time, drifted in to perform his guest set. He eventually
introduces me to Margaret Carlson when she comes in a little bit
later. I think I detect a slight chill in the air. But then again,
that could be all wrong.
As pundits and scribes file into the room, they greet one another
with cries of good cheer. There is Margaret with her namesake,
Tucker Carlson, chatting away just like they do on Inside Politics
each week, with Bernie. I hobnob with U.S. News'
Roger Simon, who has been dragged out to cheer on a friend. Pundits
seem to like other punditsthey seem to enjoy catching up on old
times. It's almost like they're a part of a club. But you know
clubsmembers do think alike.
AT ANY RATE, THE GORE-BRADLEY FORUM showed how bad it can get
when pundits all tell the same story. When scribes all agree to
tell the same tale, they stand out if they make the tale wilder.
In this case, the pundit spin on the Democratic debate hit its
zenith with Da JudgeMargaret Carlson. She banged her gavel on
In this forum, Bradley came across as more authentic than
Gore does because [Gore's] been told to adopt some of the Clinton
personality ticsgetting off the stool, asking the [questioners']
namesand that worked in the last election.
Incredibly, getting off the stool had become "Clintonesque"
as pundits strained to make the tale even better. In fact, there
had been forums at Hanover on two straight nights, one for the
Democrats and one for the GOP. And a simple look at the tape tells
the storyevery candidate got off his stool to answer every question!
And was it "Clintonesque" to use first names, responding
to citizen questioners? Again, let's go to the tape. Gore used
names in responding to three of 13 questions. The following night,
at the GOP debate, four of the first seven questioners were addressed
by first names. Overall, five of the seven candidates used first
names with questioners. The truth is, Carlson's comments, widely
repeated, really made no sense at all.
But another problem was perfectly plain to anyone with a working
VCR. A mere 48 hours after the forum, everyone knew that Gore
had been manic. The chorus of pundits recited their script with
more precision than the June Taylor Dancers. But on the night
of the forum, right after it ended, a number of commentators went
on TV live. And except for Fineman, quoted above, none of them
expressed the later group viewpoint. Journalists giving their
instant reactions seemed to have seen a quite different event.
Here was Lisa Myers, on October 27, giving Brian Williams her
take on the forum:
I think both men did very, very well...The pressure was really
on Al Gore tonight. He had to prove he isn't a stiff. And
I think he came across as relaxed. He told a joke, which
a few people laughed...He did a good job.
Try finding someoneanyone at allsaying that two days later.
Williams, though, quickly agreed:
Good points allGore was looser, and Bradley was Bradley.
Gloria Borger, on Larry King Live:
I think it was a good night for both of them. I
hate to be so mooshy about this, but I think both did what they
wanted to do...I think Al Gore got an opportunity to show off
his expertise, to talk about his experience and he also took
a couple of whacks at Bill Bradley.
Not a word about manic behavior. In fact, a variety of commentators
appeared in real time on The News with Brian Williams and
Larry King Live. And only Fineman's view even dimly resembled
the drumbeat we'd hear two days later. And how about the next-morning
papers? Ceci Connolly and Dan Balz, in the Post, weren't reciting
the pundit script either:
For the most part, the hour-long event was marked more by
civility and general agreement on a wide range of issues than
by disagreement and rancor...Both
men appeared relaxed throughout.
Within days, everyone knew that this was wrong. What had produced
this new viewpoint? I'm not a punditI have no way of knowing.
But sometimes, if you just watch closely, Pundit Lore seems to
come out of thin air. Suddenly, pundits all have the same takeand
there's no way to tell where it came from.
THE FUNNIEST CELEBRITY CONTEST, by the way, was won by Senator
Joseph Lieberman. I first met Jokin' Joe at a political event,
where his impish humor was quickly apparent. A country star warbled
on a makeshift stage, and Joe muttered sly, non-stop quips sotto
voce. I knew right then it had to be. We needed this guy for
In his set, our new Funniest Celeb got off a quip reflecting
one of the corps' latest scripts. When Bill Bradley was in the
Senate, he'd give a speech, Joe confided, and everyone would say
the speech was boring. Now, Joe joked, he gives the same speech,
and everyone says that he's "comfortable in his own skin."
And The Champ was rightevery pundit had said it. That's what
happens When Pundits Agree.
My own set, at the end, went fairly well. I did a few evergreens
I had done two years earlier. That allowed me to offer my favorite
riposte, about President Bush's old theme song, "Don't Worry,
be Happy." Punch line? "He had to be the only guy who
would run a War on Drugs with a reggae theme song." The collection
of pundits and civilians just roared. Ladies and gentlemen, that's
good solid fun.
That's rightit's good solid fun when we all laugh together.
It's good funin a comedy context. But when pundits speak out
on important topics, they ought to say what they really think.
No fair hanging out with the other top scribes, and getting group
I always see it when I hang out with the scribesthey seem
to be friends, and they all like each other. They're almost like
a fraternal orderwhy rock the boat with dispute and disagreement?
Somehow they all end up saying one thing; nobody ever seems to
get out of line. It's good fun for the pundits When Pundits Agree.
But it makes a joke of our great public discourse.