Attacking the omniscient aura of the political columnists and commentators



Eric Alterman.


353 pages. $23.

George Orwell, the saturnine British journalist and author of "Animal Farm," said political rhetoric was designed "to give an appearance of solidity to wind." In the view of critic and academician Eric Alterman, few ideological blowhards have huffed and puffed as much or done more damage than the elite corps of opinion-mongers he calls the "punditocracy."

His savagely witty and incisive "Sound & Fury" details how this select group of column writers and television pontificators came into being, and offers a radical proposal for effecting their ouster, or at least neutralization, in order to revitalize both our press and political process.

He wants to diminish the influence of a tiny group of individuals, such as George F. Will, John McLaughlin, Morton Kondrake, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, as well as such forums as the New Republic and the editorial and op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Their power, he admits, is impossible to measure or even verify, yet like an astronomer contemplating a black hole, he insists it is there. He accuses possessors of the power of using it in ways that have hastened the decline not only of American political discourse but the nation itself.

Mr. Alterman produces a damning indictment of the columnists, particularly the right-wing ideologues, who provide readers and viewers with what he calls "a combination of conservative political double-speak overlaid with frivolous Hollywood hoopla." Yet he concedes that as an audience, the public has been neither an entirely innocent victim of this decline nor especially attentive to it -- and our politicians, not surprisingly, are even worse.

More that 70 years ago, he notes, proto-pundit Walter Lippmann bewailed the problem of generating intelligent political discussion, given "the imperfections of journalistic communication coupled with the inability of most people to pay sufficient attention to politics." Today's "hyper-cautious, poll-driven politicians" seem unable to form independent judgments without having pundits tell them what to think.

Mr. Alterman contends that while the country snoozed and politicians dithered, far-right theoreticians took control of the nation's political dialogue and bestowed legitimacy on a philosophy and policies that had been "considered just this side of lunacy" prior to Ronald Reagan's election in 1980.

In assessing the work and impact of this "tiny group of highly visible political pontificators," a clique that "reigns supreme" among the people "who inhabit the insular world of insider Washington," Mr. Alterman reviews and re-fights many of the ideological battles of the Reagan and Bush administrations -- from supply-side economics to the Nicaraguan contras to the rise and fall of Mikhail Gorbachev. His exhaustively researched and skillfully written recapitulations are especially devastating in describing the conservative punditocracy's failure to comprehend the end of the Cold War, and on the apparent ease with which the pundits have avoided any diminution of their clout despite their goofs.

The punditocracy, he says, is comprised of three rings -- newspaper columns, magazines and television -- with TV being the lowest circle in hell and George Will chief Beelzebub in his demonology. As a star in all three rings, Mr. Will has achieved "a cultural presence among insiders akin to that of patron saint of a small Sicilian village."

Mr. Alterman's other characterizations are equally pungent: In terms of pure star-making ability within the punditocracy, "Nightline" host Ted Koppel falls "just percentage points behind God"; John McLaughlin, a man of "no discernible political beliefs," conducts his "pundit sitcom" program "in a fashion that owes more to a roller derby than to public affairs television"; and on Mr. McLaughlin's show, The Sun's Jack Germond is "by far the most attractive character of the lot," the kind of pundit "Fred Mertz would have been had Ethel ever let him out of the house. . . ."

Ironically, although Mr. Germond writes a joint syndicated column for the paper with Jules Witcover, an equally experienced, insightful journalist, the power of TV is such that Mr. Germond alone was named on Washingtonian's list of the country's 50 most influential journalists. Mr. Germond, unimpressed, says his appearances on the McLaughlin show constitute "a half-hour of being a dancing bear to make a better living."

Occasionally Mr. Alterman goes overboard, accusing Mr. Will of subverting the Constitution and "infecting all aspects of the journalism profession" (puh-lease); and arguing that the punditocracy forced the country into the gulf war.

He nevertheless does a remarkable job of deflating the aura of omniscience many pundits project, and he argues that one way to dilute their impact would be to free regular reporters from the constraints of "objective" journalism, giving them license to use their knowledge of their beats to pontificate, too. Mr. Alterman's "new American journalism" proposal echoes the concept W. S. Gilbert described in "The Gondoliers": "When everybody is somebody,/Then no one's anybody."

In some ways, "Sound & Fury" might be seen as a historical work, recording who had influences in the Reagan-Bush era on )) the eve of what may be its end. Mr. Alterman says the "false authority" of the current punditocracy derives "simply from its proximity to power."

New power may create new pundits. Although Mr. Alterman evidently is contentedly ensconced as a Senior Fellow of the World Policy Institute at Stanford, his own proximity to power may improve. In the acknowledgments to this book, he makes a jocular reference to assistance from "Boy-wonder George Stephanopoulos, the best man at my wedding . . ." As communications director for Bill Clinton, Mr. Stephanopoulos could be moving closer to the power centers of Washington. Presumably Mr. Alterman could sully himself with some of that "false authority" such an association might afford in the future, if he wishes.

Mr. Grauer is the author and illustrator of "Wits & Sages" (Johns Hopkins Press), a book about syndicated columnists.

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