Pundits, by tradition and definition, are supposed to have expertise in a particular field and the scholarship to back it up. Although we’ve come to know them as journalists, academics or former political players who hold forth in print or on TV, the Sanskrit-derived term originally referred to a wise and learned person who counseled kings or advised judges on Hindu law.
But recent events suggest that a lot of today’s pundits are a far less lofty breed: They are bad-take artists — especially when it comes to making political predictions.
And their flagrant wrongness seems to draw virtually no repercussions, unless you count being mocked on Twitter. That’s why it was so delightful to see my colleague Erik Wemple catalogue some of the confident predictions that, never fear, Roe v. Wade certainly would not be overturned.
But abortion rights was hardly the only wrong call lately.
“The Jan. 6 committee has already blown it,” decided David Brooks, who holds one of those New York Times appointments as an op-ed columnist that rival the Supreme Court in their tenure. That was the headline of his column in early June, a few days before the first televised hearing, using his precious space to opine that the hearings would be pointless since whatever relative minutiae they turned up would fail to address the deeper problems of our nation. Their purported goals — breaking through the noise of today’s politics and proving how deeply Donald Trump was involved in the insurrection planning — weren’t nearly broad or meaningful enough.
“No offense,” Brooks wrote, “but these goals are pathetic.”
As it happened, though, the hearings haven’t “blown it” by any measure. Millions of Americans are watching, many are riveted, and the testimony is clearly important for accountability. They may even change some hearts and minds. (TV viewership is no measure of the deep significance but, for the stunning testimony of White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson last week, more than 13 million Americans tuned in, according to the Los Angeles Times, exceeding viewership for every 2022 NBA Finals game except for one.)
Brooks has lots of company in Pundit Tower.
“Nancy Pelosi just doomed the already tiny chances of the 1/6 committee actually mattering,” wrote CNN’s Chris Cillizza last summer.
“If you ever held any hope that the House select committee … might … help us understand what happened in the lead-up to that day and, in so doing, provide us avenues to keep it from happening again, you should give up those hopes now.” That failure, he reasoned would be due to the House speaker’s decision to reject two of the five nominees — Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana — that Republican leadership wanted on the panel.
Pelosi’s move, Cillizza wrote, would doom even the possibility of the committee being perceived as bipartisan or independent.
In fact, of course, refusing to seat the obstreperous loudmouth Jordan, in particular, has been a saving grace. The hearings have been dignified, compelling and — because they have featured so much testimony from Republican officials and have been led in part by Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger — actually have come off as nonpartisan. They seem focused on truth-seeking rather than making cheap political points.
More recently, Cillizza has changed his tune, for examples with a headline last week evaluating Hutchinson’s testimony as “utterly devastating” for Trump.
In the bad-takes Hall of Fame, though, it’s hard to top Mick Mulvaney’s prediction in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that Trump — whom he served for a time as acting chief of staff — would do the right thing if Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.
“If He Loses, Trump Will Concede Gracefully,” the headline asserted.
Instead, we got a deadly riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and Trump’s ceaseless campaign to deny the legitimate election results.
Far from being ostracized for such a view, Mulvaney landed a plum spot with CBS News as — yes — a pundit. A top CBS executive explained the bizarre move: Mulvaney would help provide “access” to Republicans as the midterm elections approach.
We all fall prey to the temptation to consult our crystal balls. I failed at it spectacularly myself when asked by New York magazine years ago, along with many others, to predict whether Trump would make it through his first term. I said he would but wouldn’t run again in 2020, and I suggested that America would then have its first female president in Kirsten Gillibrand. Since then, chastened somewhat, I’ve tried to resist making predictions, even in a subject area I actually know something about — like the fate of local newspapers.
There’s a secret society at Yale, supposedly made up of “campus wits,” that calls itself The Pundits, famous for undergraduate pranks, including streaking through the university’s libraries clothed only in their self-regard and hosting naked parties.
Professional pundits ought to keep such images in mind whenever they are tempted to peer into the future. More than likely, they’re at high risk of exposing themselves.