O'Reilly, Reali, What's the Difference?

A couple of days ago, Brad DeLong hoisted a proposal from comments (originally suggested by Bernard Yomtov):

A reporter should not be assigned to cover subject X unless he has as good an understanding of X as a baseball writer is expected to have of baseball.

Kevin Drum isn't sold on the idea:

Man, does this seem backward. If you asked me what was wrong with big-league political reporting in this country, I'd say its biggest problem is that is has too much in common with big league sports writing. Reporters like Adam Nagourney and John Harris don't lack for expertise in politics, after all. They have trainloads of it. Their problem is precisely that they treat politics the way sportwriters treat baseball: as a game, in which both sides are equivalent, you're not supposed to play favorites, you favor polls and statistics over substantive (but boring!) analysis, trivia is a source of endless fascination, and a clever bon mot is irresistable regardless of whether it's actually fair or accurate.

I'm pretty much with Kevin on this, though his comment does remind me of the one good purpose served by shows like ESPN's Around the Horn: namely, as a reality check.

They're not particularly useful even within the world of sports, but Around the Horn is a useful corrective to political punditry. It's good to watch every now and again not just because it's on right before the vastly superior Pardon the Interruption, but because it's a reminder about the real quality of punditry. When you hear Woody Paige or Jay Marriotti say something jaw-droppingly asinine about Barry Bonds or Tiger Woods or whoever, remember that these guys are at the very top of their profession.

And the next time you find yourself getting torqued off by the latest from Krauthammer, or Brooks, or Hitchens, or Dowd, or whoever, remember that they occupy exactly the same position within their profession that the yammering jackasses on Around the Horn do in theirs. And their grand pronouncements about How Things Are are exactly as meaningful and useful as Woody Paige's thoughts about instant replay.

There are days when I think that the biggest problem with the news media is that we take them far too seriously. For whatever reason, people treat professional political journalists as Serious and Important People, and give inordinate weight to what they have to say. And yet, at the end of the day, they're not a whole lot better than sports columnists.

It's not an accident that the three best political commentators on television are two comedians and a former SportsCenter anchor.

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So what is the PTI for politics??? For me it used to be David Brinkley's Sunday show.

There's a lot of damn problems with the media, and taking them too seriously is definitely one of them. Another is that while reporters on the political beat may, in the course of things, pick up a lot of knowledge about politics the sport, they seem to have picked up precious little about policies and governing.

Probably because they neither make policy nor implement it. This puts them in exactly the same position as you or I, except with a bigger megaphone.

By John Novak (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

I have to wonder if Ezra didn't mean that pundits should have subject matter expertise outside of politics. Like, for example, economics, law, whatever. That would be good.

Just like to point out that Woody Paige is a columnist these days, rather than a reporter. Although his knowledge is that of a reporter, its his job to be outrageous. As we from Denver well know, his opinions on other cities teams, no matter what the sport, is guaranteed to offend someone from that city.

Hear, hear.

By Mike Molloy (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

The reason the two comedians are so good is that a comedian has to pay attention to words. Their profession is based on the subtle choice of one word over another. That is not the case with journalists, who send their text to the recycling bin every day. Thus a comedian is more likely to notice the use of rhetoric that explicitly says one thing while implicitly suggesting something quite different. None of this is accidental; the statements have been carefully crafted so that the intended misinterpretation can be dismissed as an accident. (I know, because we used those tricks in debate back in high school.) Since intended misinterpretation is at the heart of certain kinds of jokes, someone like John Stewart notices it right away.

(IMO, much of what has given "framing" a bad name is that people use the term "framing the debate" when they really mean "rhetorically manipulating the debate".)

Olberman, on the other hand, merely brings passion and clear speaking to his opinion pieces, a quality missing in the candidates who should be making those statements.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink