Some Educated Opinions on Pundits

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Finding self-proclaimed experts who can talk the talk on TV is easy. Finding people who actually KNOW what they're talking about is frequently a little more difficult. Our Cover Story is reported by Susan Spencer of "48 Hours":

From the ranting on the radio, to the babbling in the blogs and the carping on cable, just TRY to escape other people's opinions.

Pundits are everywhere, and they're almost always at full boil.

Conservative commentator J.P. Freire, who aspires to pundit stardom, said, "I think that the better pundits are people who either can pretend that they know a lot about something, so they're an expert at pretending, or they're an expert in the actual issue."

Just 26, Freire is a regular on cable news.

Spencer asked Freire what his mindset is when he walks into a studio.

"I want to destroy the other person," he said. " . . . No, I'm kidding," he laughed.

"No, I don't think you are kidding necessarily," said Spencer.

"Not at all, not at all. It's more that I want to get my point across as succinctly and quickly as possible."

"So what is the biggest pitfall, then, that you worry about?"

"Saying something stupid," Freire said.

Saying something stupid probably didn't much concern early pundits. After all, the word itself means "learned man or scholar." It comes from 17th century Sanskrit.

But the concept is much older than that.

"Socrates, Plato, Buddha, Jesus. What are they doing? They're giving their opinions about the world, about how the world should be," said T.J. Walker, who spent 15 years as a political commentator on radio. "The idea of trying to shape public opinion - that's something that has been around since the beginning of time."

For Walker, modern pundits owe it all to just ONE man. The year was 1951:

"William F. Buckley wrote 'God and Man at Yale.' Then, he went from books to speaking to a TV talk show, and really was the first modern multimedia pundit."

William Buckley's "Firing Line" ran for more than three decades. But he never had to face the dilemma of today's pundits: too many shows, and too few real experts.

"They always want fresh faces," said Freire. "The consequence of that is that you wind up having to get people that you're not really certain about their credentials, but you know that they know something enough to pass through a pre-interview on the phone."

"What percentage do you think really know what they're talking about?" asked Spencer.

"Oh heavens, I think probably about maybe 40 to 50 percent."

"That's depressing!" said Spencer.

Suppose by now you're thinking: "Hey, I know a lot, maybe I could be a pundit."

Well, believe it or not, you can go to "pundit school," where, using an arsenal of cameras, lights and props, you too can learn the fine art of talking, expounding and, of course, interrupting.

"We coach people to look their best and sound their best any time they're on TV or talk to a reporter," said Walker, who is now the CEO of Media Training Worldwide.

He believes star pundits know that how-you-look is often more powerful than what-you-say.

"You have to come across as forceful," Walker said. "You can't say, 'Well, I think . . . ,' or 'It seems to me . . . ,' or 'Maybe . . . .'"

Also a no-no: looking up.

"It makes you look uncertain," Walker said.

Walker not only teaches clients where to put their eyes, but also where to keep their feet (one foot forward, one foot back), what to do with their hands ("What I recommend is elbows bent, fingertips almost touching . . . and then, when you're talking, just gesture"), and what not to do in a chair ("If you sit back, relaxed, this is the worst way to sit, It makes anyone look fat, rumpled, and just blah").

All this talk about talk doesn't come cheap. Walker charges clients $7,500 per day to be trained.

"Is that pretty much the going rate in this field?" Spencer asked.

"I hope not," he said. "I hope it's at the high-end."

But even pundit school grads have to admit that looking like an expert is quite different from actually being one . . . and no one knows that better than University of Califronia-Berkely Business School Professor Phil Tetlock, an expert on experts.

"I think a lot of expertise you see in the media serves more of an entertainment function," he said.

His book, "Expert Political Judgment," examines the accuracy of roughly 30,000 predictions made by almost 300 supposed "experts," and finds a definite trend . . .

"There is gonna be a negative correlation between how telegenic you are and how famous you are, and how accurate you are," he said.

"So, the better you are on television, the less accurate you're likely to be?"

"The lower profile, more boring experts, are more likely to be accurate," Tetlock said.

"Yeah, try to sell that to a TV producer!"

"It's a hard sell," he said.

It's a hard sell because TV producers aren't likely to book the pundits Tetlock calls the "foxes" - people who have complicated thought patterns, but tend to get things right more often. Their opposites he nicknames the "hedgehogs," a TV producer's dream.

"They're more strident," Tetlock said. "They're more enthusiastic about their ideas. They offer better sound bites."

Spencer asked Walker if the public has a right to expect that people who are on television opining at least have some expertise.

"They do have expertise," he said. "They have expertise on opining. And in many cases, they don't know any more than your crazy uncle who's had too much to drink at the Christmas party."

So . . . where exactly does that leave the viewer?

"Viewers have a right to assume that they should be skeptical any time someone is identified as a pundit," Walker said.

Freire says the public "gets" it: "The American television audience is nowhere near as close to the doe-eyed idiots that a lot of people think them to be, because they can watch and they can see when someone's genuine. They can watch and they can see when someone knows what they're talking about."

But can they? Really?

How about all those angry investors who took boneheaded financial advice from the TV pundits last year, before the economy crashed?

Their willingness to go along with "expert" opinion doesn't surprise Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University, who studies how our brains react to such information.

In a nutshell, he says our brains pretty much check out.

"If we bring someone in who kind of has this billing as an 'expert,' it's just much easier to, you know, turn over your decision making to that person," Berns said.

You even can see it on brain scans: The areas that usually light up when we're weighing our options go completely dark when an "expert" offers an opinion.

So, we asked our expert, Dr. Berns, would we be better off ignoring the experts?

"My advice is to have confidence in your own decision-making, and use it. Yes, absolutely use it."

And as for the endlessly opining pundits . . .

"I think it's just entertainment," Berns said. "It's just simply attention-grabbing."

Walker said, "People like conflict. People like professional wrestling. They like ultimate fighting. That's part of what two pundits fighting is."

And sometimes, of course, the experts and the pundits are even RIGHT, Just keep that grain of salt handy.

For more info:

  • "Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs" (DVD)
  • Gregory S. Berns, Emory University