Punditry Needs Scrutiny


Washington. David Gergen of U.S. News & World Report makes a sound point: Every other industry in America is moving toward quality control -- what about the pundits, the experts and the journalists?

It's a good question. What about them? Many have much to answer for.

Consider these lulus that were purveyed to the public: There would be 20,000 American bodybags. Blacks would bear the burden. We needed a draft. The Arab "street" would erupt. An air war can't be surgical. An air war can't work. The president hasn't prepared the country for war. Americans wouldn't support the war. The anti-war movement was growing. The coalition wouldn't hold.

Many facts were wrong, many opinions were (by my lights) off-the-wall. Yet, the prattle shaped the debate. (We came within four Democratic Senate votes of a constitutional firestorm that would have played into Saddam Hussein's hands.)

More than ever, pundits and experts play a powerful role in forming policy. When the Gulf War began, it was called "the battle of the columnists."

An underperforming quarterback is benched. Doctors face malpractice action. Politicians face the voters. A general who makes a wrong call doesn't get promoted. They are all also scrutinized by the press-pundit-experts. Such scrutiny often pushes the scrutinees toward better performance.

But who judges the judges? Who shines the spotlight on the pundits, the press and the experts? Who protects the consumer?

What to do? Don't purge pundits. Don't exorcise experts. No jihad for journalists. But pundits ought to be under the same scrutiny as everyone else. That's consumer protection.

Pundits and experts usually don't attack each other publicly. They should start. The quality of experts, pundits and journalists is even more important to our national well-being than the quality of our quarterbacks.

Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of "The First Universal Nation," published by The Free Press.

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