Regulating Pundits

Joshua Green writes:

[P]undits are a plague on us all. It is time we acted.

The crowning indignity, of course, is that they're usually wrong. Not just off-by-a-few-degrees wrong, but invading-Iraq-is-a-good-idea wrong. “Dow 36,000” wrong. And what are the consequences? There are none at all! You can blow the biggest questions of the day, time after time, and still claim to be a discerning seer.

Well, there ought to be consequences. It's not as if blogs and propaganda outlets don't keep trackof this stuff. In Washington, regulation is back in fashion. If we can regulate tricky things like credit-default swaps, surely we can regulate pundits.

That pesky First Amendment prevents us from silencing them outright. But couldn't the more reputable media outlets reach a gentleman's agreement to stop inviting commentary from the very worst offenders, at least for a respectable interlude? Pundits should have to explain their bad calls (and grovel?) as a condition of return.

It's always amazed me that entire foundations seem to exist solely for the purpose of dispatching hordes of green-eyeshaded technicians to pore over transcripts and news clippings in a civic-minded effort to detect “bias” in media coverage. Who cares? Why not measure quality—or the lack thereof—instead? That would be useful information.

Regulating pundits needn't be the province of dull nonprofits and media scolds. It could be fun! What would be more satisfying than a Daily Show segment that routinely held the worst offenders up for public ridicule? Let's keep a list of them online—a surefire traffic-generator if ever there was one. Some reputable publication with a track record more often right than wrong could serve as sponsor and steward.

Hmm. Green seems to recognize that we do this already but allows the reason it doesn't work as he would like to slip under his nose.

There is a huge amount of energy devoted to tearing down the credibility of pundits of all stripes. There is Sourcewatch. There is Discover the Network. One of the main activities of pundits is attempting to shame and marginalize opposing pundits. And it's not as if the editors and producers of “more reputable media outlets” (which one's are those!?) don't apply a discerning filter. The problem is that the motivation to “regulate” stray pundits is primarily ideological. And ideology is precisely why there is so little agreement about whether a particular pundit is right or wrong, whether a media outlet is reputable or disreputable.

The Dow 36,000 example is easy, since it's so easy to determine with certainty that it did not come to pass. But almost nothing is like this. So, to take Green's other example, I have always thought it was wrong to invade Iraq, but I don't feel like I know yet whether it was a “good idea” in a more compehensive historical sense. Maybe we're seeing the domino theory in action right now in Iran. Or not. The thing is nobody really knows. I don't feel like I know that America's entry into World War II was a good idea. For all I know, Germany would have otherwise walloped the Soviets and the rest of the century might have turned out better than it did. But if you say that you don't know for sure that America's entry into World War II was not a good idea, people will start to regulate you right away. (Ask Jim Cramer's regulator, Jon Stewart, who was sternly regulated for suggesting, quite reasonably, that Truman was a war criminal.) Indeed, Green's choice of “invading-Iraq-was-a-good-idea wrong” is a not-so-sly attempt to marginalize those who disagree.

So who does the financial markets collapse discredit? Free market ideologues? The Federal Reserve? People who trust regulation to work? Those who supported policies to increase homeownership among the poor? Who gets a black mark? Who gets a gold star? Should we dogpile Joshua Green for this ill-conceived piece of meta-punditry?

I think what Green wants is an ideas future market. So far, this idea has been regulated into ineffectuality, literally.