Journalists should stop subsidizing the pundit class

It seems to be its own past-time to ask John Kasich whether he’s going to run again for president, perhaps even challenging the incumbent Donald Trump.

CNN is especially interested in Kasich’s plans, and the network invited the two-term Ohio Governor to let viewers see into a crystal ball, and know if he sees a way to the White House.

“Right now, I don’t see it,” Kasich told the network, surely dashing the hopes of keen political observers wanting another narrative arc to follow.

“That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be a path down the road,” he said, maintaining the possibility of a plot twist later.

I wasn’t surprised by Kasich saying this to CNN in August 2019, not only because I’m a journalist in Ohio and generally feel there would be more buzz before such a move.

The main reason I wasn’t surprised to read about Kasich on CNN is because Kasich is on CNN’s payroll as a Sr. Political Commentator.

CNN paid John Kasich, so CNN could ask John Kasich if John Kasich was going to challenge Donald Trump for the White House.

It reminded me of a time in May 2019 when John Kasich, a CNN contributor, told CNN that “I don’t see a way to get there,” referring to a primary challenge of Donald Trump.

It’s the same thing John Kasich told a conference in Michigan, also in May 2019, that “there’s no path for me right now.” (I’m not sure if that conference compensated Kasich for that comment.)

Some networks and producers might argue that paying for expert commentary serves well the public by revealing knowledge or insight that would be otherwise hidden or too specialized for laymen to grasp.

But this relationship of commentators, pundits, experts, and media has been murky for decades, and putting an end to the pundit arms race is vital to restoring public trust in journalism and elected officials alike.

Pay to Play

The news ecosystem is ever more hectic, and a Tweet can change the course of the national political, economic, and social agenda in a flash.

In between the Tweet-storms, however, media outlets still feel the need to keep their cable shows, websites, Facebook Lives, etc., fresh, interesting, and relevant.

The competition for eyeballs and advertisers is fierce, so it makes sense, from a business perspective, that networks would want to have experts on retainer to fill that time.

Critics have long called this checkbook journalism: paying for a story, analysis, or insight. While the producer may have someone to fill time at their every beck and call, the audience is left wondering whether the guest’s motives are pure.

Journalists are to seek out the right sources, experts, industry analysts, characters, etc. to help explain a news story.

Those voices are included to help the public understand, and the compensation for that contribution — if you want to call it compensation — is notoriety, validation, and maybe added respect in the wider public.

But if you introduce money to the equation, the audience could wonder whether the ‘expertise’ is fabricated just so the person can get paid. (Yes, a person could parlay appearances in the press into book deals, or some such thing, but the cash isn’t coming from the media outlets)

Maybe the guest knows that saying something sensational will keep the gravy train rolling, so they gauge their appearances accordingly.

This can taint the news product, and make an already skeptical public more skeptical about exactly why someone is saying something about something, and for how much money are they doing it.

As a piece from Slate noted back in 1998 (!) compensation “depends primarily on whether the particular TV show is classified as “entertainment” or “news.””

At least that used to be a useful rubric.

You might expect the guests on Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, or the like, to get an all-expenses-paid trip to the program to better facilitate the spectacle.

But those shows aren’t news.

Good Morning America, or The Today Showhave also been known to cut checks for certain material, but these shows are hybrid news/entertainment programs, so perhaps the standards are different? (The networks consider these shows differently than the nightly news, but paying for stories or experts is still an ethical problem, and one the public should think about.)

After the second war in Iraq, the American Journalism Review (AJR) revisited the pundit issue, with the rise of military experts explaining the ins-and-outs of a polarizing war.

And cable and legacy networks wanted to have the best analysis from the highest-ranking military officers possible.

“Exclusivity is one of the goals,” a spokeswoman for ABC News told AJR at the time.

Talking just to fill time

Programs, publications, or networks often strive for that exclusivity by booking newsmakers to give high-level analysis and insight, which stands as journalism on its own.

While John Kasich’s CV of course reveals his decades of political experience, his appearance on CNN is not one in the vein of a traditional newsmaker, I don’t think, not only because he’s on the payroll of the network on which he appears.

Kasich’s appearances further his own brand, maybe sell another book or two, and allow him to stay top-of-mind for those tied-in to the political horse race.

It’s unclear, to me at least, that repeated comments about not running for president rise to the level of comment worthy of headlines in and of themselves.

Our screens are increasingly filled with more boxes filled with more heads not out of any real motive to decode our complicated world.

Instead, the talking to fill time is an end in itself.

All too often audiences aren’t being bombarded with high-quality analysis, rather they’re given political sniping, speculation, or manufactured controversy or ‘news’.

All to fill time.

To borrow from von Clausewitz: news punditry is not only an extension of politics by other means, but increasingly an end in itself.

“Feeding the (media) beast” results in a cheapening of the news product, and the immense power of the airwaves, just as it cheapens the words and influence of politicians, experts, and commentators who may at times have great insights, but needn’t be on cable news just to be on cable news.

No single solution will restore the public’s trust in politicians or the press.

Deciding to tip the balance of commentators and experts who get air time from those compensated by the almighty Dollar, to those compensated by public validation and peer review, would be a great step.

Idealistic? Maybe.

But the system we have now has promoted a din of anger and watered-down conversation packaged as something exclusive.

We should demand better.

Support this post on Medium.

Have something to add?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

No thanks