Guessing the future: For pundits, it beats working


"WE ALL HAVE to predict," Newsweek's Eleanor Clift lamented on a call-in radio discussion show recently. "We're always asked to be seers."

A day or so earlier, another talking head, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, delivered a similar plaint.

The only honest answer

"Television viewers and even readers of our most serious newspapers want you to take a shot" at predicting the next primary result, Mr. McManus told the Washington Post. So if you're in the punditry business, you have to comply, even if, as Mr. McManus acknowledged, "the only honest answer is, 'There's no way I could possibly know.' "

So now we know. The poor pundits. It's not their idea to make all those prophecies -- they're badgered into it. Popular demand, you know. A dirty job but someone's got to do it.

Oh? Just who, please, beside their fellow pundits and the discussion-show hosts, is "asking" for all this handicapping? Are letters pouring into the L.A. Times or Newsweek pleading "Dear Doyle (or Eleanor), please tell us who's going to win in (fill in state)"?

Professional insiders

Outside the community of professional insiders -- the politicians and their handlers and consultants and the reporters and "analysts" covering them, who usually give the impression of being far more fascinated by the sport of a campaign than by its substance -- the interest in handicapping elections may be a lot less than Mr. McManus and Ms. Clift and their colleagues seem to imagine. (Of course, it might be different if the handicappers were right more often -- but let's not go into that.)

Should a pundit venture out and ask some actual readers or listeners, he or she might find people asking not for more predictions, but for something else. Reporting, perhaps -- finding and telling your audience things they didn't know before. It's how journalists used to make their living and their reputations, back before the talking-head era.

If current campaign journalism gave us less speculation about things that haven't happened yet and more news about things that have, voters might approach their decisions with more information that will actually help them choose among the candidates.

Missing issues

We might know, for example, what Pat Buchanan's policies are on income taxes, the budget and entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and welfare).

We might know just what Lamar Alexander's new ideas are, and how carefully he's thought about them. Would his proposed new branch of the armed forces be assigned to go around arresting illegal immigrants already here, or just to patrol the border? How would he divvy up the funds while turning over welfare to private charities?

Do you know? Does Mr. Alexander? I don't, and I am a reasonably attentive, if not compulsive, consumer of campaign news.

The usual answer to this complaint is that it's not journalists' fault if people don't remember substantive stories.

There's some truth to that, but not enough to get journalists off the hook. A reporter may have mentioned a candidate's position on entitlements in the 46th paragraph of a long profile early in the campaign.

But when the same candidate gets hot later -- making it even more important, one would think, to illuminate what he might actually do as president -- policy issues virtually vanish except for those the candidate chooses to emphasize.

The same questions

After Mr. Buchanan's victory in New Hampshire, for example, no reporter seemed to think it was unduly repetitive to ask him the same questions over and over about trade and immigration. But how many reporters have asked him about Medicaid or taxes? None that I've heard.

Surely these policy questions are more relevant for the public than some pundit's conventional wisdom about who will win where.

But real reporting is work. Speculating is fun (for those who like the game) and effortless, which may be one of the reasons why within a minute or two of her lament on the radio the other day, Ms. Clift and her colleagues were right back at it, predicting in confident tones that Mr. Alexander would be out of the race after the next primary in South Carolina.

Last time, they were equally confident when they failed to forecast Steve Forbes' victory in Arizona.

Not to worry. In the world of punditry, Arizona was history, of no relevance. South Carolina, having not happened yet, was now the "news" -- a comforting kind of news, where no one needs to know anything, reporting takes no effort, and no one can (yet) be wrong.

Arnold R. Isaacs is a former Sun reporter.

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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