Good Punditry in the Twitter Age
Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter should remind pundits of the importance of telling obvious truths.
Many journalists have condemned Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in the name of combating “misinformation,” but they may have a more base motivation: professional anxiety. Today, everyone is an amateur journalist because the internet allows us all to spread information.
This explains why professional journalism now more obviously resembles propaganda; journalists need to define the purpose of their job in an age when large aspects of it are obsolete. Many journalists have adapted to the information age by becoming a type of pundit. This is a dangerous transformation, because pundits are perhaps uniquely unsuited to discuss American life honestly. Pundits are incentivized to avoid stating obvious truths, and the nature of their job makes them ill-equipped to comment upon some of the most important changes in America.
Op-ed columnists, cable-news hosts, and public intellectuals ostensibly analyze current events. However, it is difficult to verify if a pundit’s ideas are correct, and there is no system to hold them accountable when they’re wrong. When a person doesn’t have a stake in what is being commented upon they don’t face consequences for their errors. This is a well-known phenomenon, written about in books like Taleb Nassim’s Skin in the Game and Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society. Intellectuals in the 1970s warned about global cooling and impending worldwide famine, neither of which came to pass. This phenomenon is prominent in the political realm, where pundits weigh in on societal events that, by their very nature, are impacted by thousands of unknown variables. Many writers have had long and well-paid careers being incorrect about every major issue. What then is the purpose of the pundit?
The pundit’s true job isn’t to be correct, or insightful, but to produce interesting opinions on a regular basis. Pundits therefore face pressure to differentiate their views and respond to this incentive in a few predictable ways. A common tactic is to pretend that events are more complicated than they appear. When the news cycle is slow, pundits spend time explaining the outsized significance of transparently insignificant events. Another way of gaining attention is to become hyper partisan. While America is deeply divided on first principles, people need to be honest about the fact that polarization is fun. The opposite tendency is also driven by the need to differentiate one’s ideas. Pundits on clear sides of the left-right divide will produce contrarian pieces countering their own side’s views—“The conservative case for hating conservatives,” etc. Faux moderation and polarizing red meat are opposite sides of the same coin: an easy way to flatter readers. Another tactic is to analyze the marginal, unique, or esoteric. An essay on the latest internet-driven boutique ideology is interesting to read, but politics is more often shaped by boring information that everyone has access to, like prices in the commodity markets.
Ultimately, the pundit is incentivized to avoid stating obvious truths that readers already know. This can end up blinding them to the obvious. In the past ten years, America has developed Soviet-style speech regulations, and our most successful public commentators had almost nothing insightful to say about it. Yes, there were conversations about abstractions like “free speech,” or inarticulate debates about “cancel culture” but they always missed crucial and obvious aspects. “Cancel culture” is a catch-all term that people use to refer to several different societal changes brought on by the internet. One of those changes is that human-resources departments now have social-media policies, and have effectively become quasi-governmental agencies that can regulate speech in all areas of life. This is why there is such widespread and generalized anxiety over getting “canceled”: If you can have your livelihood destroyed for writing that a man is a man on social media, then you’re not a free citizen in any significant sense. Pundits failed to appreciate this development because they have one of the few jobs where people are encouraged to give an opinion.
Fear of “cancellation” is also driven by another strange experience from which professional pundits are cut off. Constant anxiety about being canceled allows the average American to pretend that their opinion matters enough for anyone to care. When Alexis De Tocqueville visited America in 1831, he observed that democracy made citizens constantly swing between grandiose visions of their future and dejected feelings of insignificance. In the 1970s, Christopher Lasch observed this same phenomenon, but thought that mass media and Hollywood sold such outsized dreams to Americans that this tendency soured into narcissism. The conversation around free speech and cancel culture reflects this tendency in the internet age. It’s easy to mock this as a form of narcissism, but it’s a good sign that people feel this way: American civilization will not continue in a recognizable way if its population believes their opinions simply don’t matter. We depend upon the barstool philosopher, the carefully crafted letters to the editor, the know-it-all sports radio caller, and, yes, even the kooks in the comments section. Perhaps in a dim way, people recognize that the ability to be outrageous online is an act that distinguishes them as citizens rather than cogs.
The universal human-resources regime threatens to undermine core pillars of a democratic culture, and this is why Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is such an important victory for self-rule. Twitter represents a great democratic force, and the professional pundit is threatened by the mass of amateurs whose opinions aren’t governed by the same restrictive incentives. Amateur pundits are more comfortable just stating the obvious, like the obvious fact that many Americans don’t want more immigration. This helped many of them rise to prominence during the 2016 election, and some are now as influential as pundits in legacy media. Opposition to Elon Musk’s acquisition is primarily driven by ideological fervor, and the desire for power and control. But lurking behind these more obvious motives is a level of professional anxiety.
After 2016, there was a brief period where the media discussed the “liberal bubble” or “out-of-touch elites.” This moralistic language made it difficult for many to accept the obvious, and therefore elite conversations shifted to “misinformation.” This spared the powerful from self-reflection, and prevented them from seeing the role anxiety plays in American life today. Pundits can react to the Musk acquisition by pretending not to understand the issues at stake, or adopt pedantic postures that quibble over the definition of “free speech,” but none of that will assuage the lurking anxiety that the internet has made many people’s jobs obsolete. Those who try to find renewed purpose in their jobs by becoming “misinformation experts,” or opinion hall-monitors will further destabilize society. They ignore the obvious: the creation of a new tyranny.
Self-reflection about their actual incentives to ignore the obvious will offer a new path forward for America’s professional pundit class. The internet creates a perpetual mob that is constantly hyperventilating over the latest “existential crisis” or world-ending catastrophe. The best pundits are the people who put down the neurotic kaleidoscope and simply state the obvious. They should remind us of truths we already know.
James McElroy is a New York City-based writer.