But they can’t, because those stunted, unsophisticated Americans out there — the ones Brooks is able simultaneously to look down upon and understand and speak for [bold mine-DL] — don’t want to hear about any weighty matters. ~Glenn Greenwald
Greenwald will get no argument from me that there is something inherently absurd about elite pundits acting as if they were the voices of the Everyman, and he is also right that the defense of the media’s “gotcha” style is self-serving and designed to keep journalists and pundits from having to accept responsibility for the poverty of political discourse in America. (Think of this way: it’s as if a bunch of cooks kept producing terrible, tasteless food, and then justified their bad cooking by saying that it was what the customers wanted to eat.) But this phrasing of part of his complaint against Brooks is telling, since looking down on and understanding and speaking for a certain class of people is exactly what Obama was engaged in earlier this month. The indictment of Brooks extends to Obama as well.
The thing I have found most entertaining about the responses to the debate on Wednesday is the complaint that the “substantive” part did not start until 45 minutes into the debate. Taken at face value, one might think that the problem was with the order of the questioning, and not the content of the first 45 minutes, but at the heart of this complaint is the assumption–a potentially dangerously elitist assumption!–that voters actually care about policy detail and substance. This is the wonk’s self-serving myth. It occurs to me that most voters don’t even watch televised debates and never will (and not just because they are “turned off” by the way they are done), and a great many primary voters actually do vote on the basis of personality (how else can we explain the success of John McCain?) or such insipid, meaningless themes as “change” and “hope” around which large numbers of people rally with no idea what the candidate actually proposes to do about much of anything. Even though you have people documenting how, for example, undecided voters decide in the most irrational ways which candidate they will support, and we can find antiwar and restrictionist voters backing McCain in large numbers, we are supposed to intone very piously that these same people are seriously concerned about “the issues” and are demanding that “the issues” be treated more seriously by the media. Why do “petty” personality issues continually work to drag down candidates? Because there are enough voters who actually do judge candidates primarily on these things and can be influenced in this way. If Brooks’ account is self-serving, there is a kernel of truth in it.
Still, Brooks certainly has engaged in the ultimate expression of pundit’s fallacy. It isn’t just that the pundit mistakes his views for those of the public and then builds up his argument from there, but that he is claiming that he and his colleagues are compelled to talk about things that matter to them only because The People demand the coverage. Of course, the main reason for a lot of the “gotcha” style is simply to go on a power trip, to make national politicians squirm on television or throw obstacles in their path to power. This is what unaccountable gatekeepers always do when they have the opportunity. It is the response of most people who have their own little petty kingdom, wherever someone has leverage or control that others don’t. Fundamentally, journalists and pundits engage in this kind of questioning, just as all kings of their own little hills will act arbitrarily and unfairly: because they can. The idea that they shouldn’t do this and should instead act in the public interest is all very well, but that’s expecting something that isn’t going to happen. It won’t happen because, for one thing, journalists and pundits already think they are acting in the public’s interest, and so we are back to the beginning.