Pundits Are Not a Conserved Quantity

The thoroughly loathesome Rush Limbaugh is reaping the whirlwind from his latest gaffe (defined, of course, as any instance where a political figure shares his actual opinion with the public), with advertisers fleeing in droves. This has led to a good deal of chortling among the liberal types in my social media universe, but Kevin Drum finds a cloud to go with that silver lining:

And yet….there’s an obvious slippery slope here. Lots of advertisers already shy away from political shows of every stripe, and this episode could begin to drive them all away. Why take the chance, even on a host who doesn’t usually cause national outrage? “Usually” isn’t never, after all, and in any case, you never know what a guest is going to say. Better to stick with local blowhards and self-help shows.

Limbaugh is getting what he finally deserves. I couldn’t be happier about it. I just hope that down the road this doesn’t turn into a preemptive boycott of every political gabber out there who has even the smallest chance of ever producing any national blowback. That runs the risk of turning every show into a bland marshmallow. It wouldn’t make the world a better place.

Actually, I think it would. Because I don’t share the hidden assumption in Drum’s piece, namely that pundits are a fixed and necessary feature of the media landscape. The theory that gun-shy advertisers would turn every pundit show bland implicitly assumes that there will always be pundit shows– in physics terms, that pundits are a conserved quantity, like quarks or leptons, where the total number in the universe is always the same.

But pundits aren’t a conserved quantity. They’re more like photons or other gauge bosons, able to be created and destroyed as needed. Or, to switch back out of physics terms, they’re like bacteria, or maggots, spawning in huge numbers where rotting filth collects.

Which is why I welcome the slippery slope. Because I like to think that if advertisers get leery of pundit shows and stop advertising on them, the net result will be fewer pundit shows, which would be an unambiguously good thing. If the ad dollars dried up, maybe we wouldn’t have quite so many people hyperventilating around the clock about how the outrage-of-the-moment in February 2012 affects the Republican chances in 2016. Because the vast majority of what the pundit classes yammer about is absolutely meaningless– they’re working themselves into a lather over trivial nonsense because working themselves into a lather has traditionally been a great way to bring in an audience, and attract ad dollars. And the constant lathered-up state of the pundit class is driving everybody crazy.

So, I say, bring on the slippery slope. Grease Rush up, and slide his fat ass right on down. And send Bill O’Reilly with him, and Chris Matthews, and hell, Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow for good luck. It’ll mean the end of the Daily show and the Colbert Report, but if that’s the price, I’ll pay it for a reduction in the overheated jabber about completely meaningless garbage. Replace ‘em all with self-help shows, or home-improvement shows, or re-runs of Estonian sitcoms from the 1960′s– I don’t care. There’s almost nothing you could put on the air in their stead that wouldn’t make the world a better place.

Comments

  1. #1 reesei
    March 13, 2012

    I find all this hand-wringing over Rush to be just plain silly. Rush isn’t losing his advertisers because of his political views. He is losing his advertisers because instead of discussing his political views, he descended into lies, falsehoods, and personal attacks. The personal attacks he chose to use applied (in the way that he used them) to >50% of the population. Who buy a lot of products that the advertisers are trying to sell.

    There is a lot of very interesting discussion to be held on the ethics of health insurance and the intersection between personal morality and conflicting public goods. Instead of focusing on the debate, Rush pulled the grownup equivalent of a kindergartener calling someone a poopyhead.

    Rush losing his advertisers won’t lead to the death of talk shows or the end of pundits. But I do hope that it leads pundits to think before they speak, and attack ideas rather than people.

  2. #2 Evan Berkowitz
    March 13, 2012

    I wish the violation of pundit number conservation wasn’t a nonperturbative sphaleron-like effect.

  3. #3 John Novak
    March 13, 2012

    You know, I get it– Drum is a pundit, too, and is bound to feel this sort of thing more personally than I am. So in that context…

    …Christ, what a hang-wringey, self-centered pile of gibberish. What’s happening to Limbaugh is a long-overdue demonstration that there are lines not to be crossed in public discourse. That it’s this hard to find, makes me extremely skeptical of the “obvious” slippery slope that Drum is whining about.

  4. #4 becca
    March 13, 2012

    Nonsense!
    If you replaced pundits with international news of substance, it’s be a huge improvement (nothing annoys me more than turning on a news show to learn about something important and getting election blathering or sports).

    But as annoying as the ones I disagree with can be, some of them have their entertaining saving graces, and I wouldn’t give up Jon Stewart and Colbert just to avoid the Limbaughs. And Maddow… is a thing of beauty, in her wonkishness. It’s like watching a graduate student, at their best, explaining their work. Or an artist who feels compelled to paint because of a particularly glorious sunset. Anybody who is just passionately absorbed with their craft can be a joy to behold, even pundits (note that there is, technically, a difference between “political wonk” and “pundit”).

    Full disclosure- I may have a crush on Maddow. But seriously, can’t you see how much joy she gets out of what she does, most of the time?

    But then, I study listeria. There’s not much better for spawning huge numbers on rotting material. *shrug* no accounting for taste, even my own.

  5. #5 Russell
    March 14, 2012

    Reesei:

    Rush isn’t losing his advertisers because of his political views. He is losing his advertisers because instead of discussing his political views, he descended into lies, falsehoods, and personal attacks.

    If there is more to Rush’s political views than lies, falsehoods, and personal attacks, I have yet to hear it.

  6. #6 David Owen-Cruise
    March 14, 2012

    Worst case scenario:
    They replace pundit shows with reruns of pundit shows, so we can watch people hyperventilate about how the Outrage of February 2004 will affect the Democratic nomination in 2008. All the noise! None of the suspense!

  7. #7 Eric Lund
    March 14, 2012

    What’s happening to Rush, and what happened to Glen Beck before him, is that advertisers are realizing that the reputational cost of being associated with these jerks exceeds the value they get from advertising their products to the audiences who listen to these jerks. That’s how the commercial broadcasting business has operated pretty much from the day it was founded. It’s not restricted to pundits, either; advertisers have had a strong influence on entertainment as well.

    I don’t expect pundits to go away, mainly because American audiences have gotten used to it. Even if pundits did vanish from the face of the earth, the Daily Show would go on, since there would still be plenty of political material to work with–their purpose is to play the court jester, and to the extent that they are a news/pundit show it is because the people who are ostensibly in the news business are failing to deliver genuine news. (Colbert probably wouldn’t survive, but that’s because his persona is a parody of a Republican pundit.)

  8. #8 Wow
    March 14, 2012

    Especially, Eric, since the mass of audience for both those dingbats are lower class poor and, by their own rhetoric’s actions, getting poorer, therefore unable to actually afford anything.

  9. #9 BigBen93
    March 14, 2012

    It’s like this; Radio does not exist to inform or educate or entertain. Radio exists to sell soap. As long as you sell soap, you can have any sort of show you like. Do something that causes you to not be able to sell soap, and you have no show at all.

  10. #10 bks
    March 14, 2012

    There’s a difference between being a pundit, even a controversial pundit and telling outright lies. Limbaugh misrepresented Ms. Fluke’s statements and went on to defame her. That has nothing to do with being a pundit.

    –bks

  11. #11 JohnE
    March 15, 2012

    I don’t know that it would mean the end of the Daily Show and Colbert – they would just have to work a little harder for their material, which also wouldn’t be a bad thing. At the moment idiotic pundits are just handing them gags on a plate. It is making the comedians fat and lazy. When the pundits become such exaggerated caricatures of themselves you hardly need satire.

  12. #12 Thatguy
    March 15, 2012

    I find it interesting that everyone is blasting Limbaugh for his comments, no one has mentioned Maher’s comments in a similar vein. (When it comes down to what really counts, who cares what either of these bozos say?) I got rid of my TV years ago and listen to Pandora so I don’t have to put up with crap like this.

    How about a discussion about the real-life subjects? The fact that we can’t afford to pay for everyone’s medical condition? Out of control spending by our government? I could care less about subjects like who marries whom, who says what, or whether this person was insensitive to this or that group. Get over it.

  13. #13 TTT
    March 15, 2012

    Thatguy: nice attempted distraction / false equivalence, but the reason no one is talking about Maher’s anti-woman comments is that Maher is a nobody with no power.

    Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party. He sets Republican Party policy. Republican congressmen, senators, and Presidential candidates take specific position orders from him, and have to apologize to him – personally, abjectly, and in public – if they ever disobey. He repeatedly hosted VP Cheney on his show during his term.

    There is no analogue for the Democratic Party. Certainly not Maher, who has no institutional “pull” whatsoever.

  14. #14 Max
    March 16, 2012

    Yikes, back down from the edge! Pundits definitely have a place in the economy of ideas. It’s unreasonable to expect people to research, understand, process, and come to conclusions on the wide range of very complicated issues that face us as citizens of a democratic republic all on our own. An informed public debate is one way to facilitate that process.

    I would agree that there are too many pundits, that they are too often ill-informed or lying, that they aren’t held to any well-defined or meaningful standard, that it’s way too easy to selectively listen to pundits who confirm your biases. But saying pundits as a whole are bad for the country or the world? I just get way too much value from the work of certain pundits to buy that.

  15. #15 podunkmo
    March 19, 2012

    As long as there is a Congress there will be plenty of material for Stewart and Colbert.