The Psychology of Punditry

Glenn Beck is an idiot. But this article isn’t about that. Well, not just that. This article is about the cultural problem that is Glenn Beck, the latest installment in a long line of men (and women) like him. Bill O’Reilly. Sean Hannity. Ann Coulter. Rush Limbaugh. All the idiots. There must be a reason they keep rising and people keep listening. They’re not all dumb or evil. No, they’ve got to fit into the view of the world that I have that people are just normal self-interested people acting within incentive systems that guide their behavior. So I started at the beginning, I asked myself the question: where does a pundit come from?

 Glenn_Beck Foxnews

How a pundit is made:

1 oz. average intellect
1 oz. healthy ambition
1 oz. checkered past / substance abuse / looking for answers
4 oz. discovering Jesus
8 oz. thinking you’re a genius
12 oz. self-important belief you’re personally saving the world

As you can see, the “thinking you’re a genius” and “believing you’re saving the world,” tend to overwhelm the dish very quickly. That’s really where the problem begins, because when you combine those two ingredients you very quickly begin to lose perspective. The self-importance from the sense of personal mission fuses with the ego creating a being that is temporarily animated with a powerful larger than life quality.

And in many cases the neophyte pundit was really onto something, tapping into a current of thought on a social issue that needed to be explored. Most pundits who make it originally did some minor social good by giving a voice to and making people pay attention to something they had previously been ignoring. But here’s where it gets ugly. Having tasted success and attention, having been imbued with that magical sense of personal mission, of “personally saving the world,” the pundit is now addicted.

In order to stay relevant the pundit has to keep taking issues, keep picking fights. But since he brought attention to that original issue that launched him other smarter people have gotten their hands on it. They’ve thought about it, analyzed it, and come to the conclusion that it’s a much more complex problem than shouting about it on the radio can solve. But the pundit is addicted. The thinker who started off giving voice to a legitimate issue has found a new identity, that of the mouthpiece rather than the brain. From now on the pundit will do whatever it takes to keep his audience, including (subconsciously) adjusting his own political and social views.

The whole thing gets even more complicated when you throw in a news organization with a clear agenda like Fox News. Now the pundit’s employer as well as his audience are calling the shots on his supposedly personal beliefs. Gradually the pundit is hollowed out from both sides, leaving less and less room for independent thought and reflection since his livelihood, as well as his sense of self and identity, are entirely dependent on satisfying someone else with the views and opinions he puts out on the airwaves. With his personal convictions out of the way the pundit remains for a time as a partisan mouthpiece broadcasting a message that is less and less his own until he slips at playing to his audience, his ratings fall and he falls into irrelevance.

Pity the poor pundit, for he is a pawn who does not know it.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Psychology of Punditry

  1. This was well done, my friend, but you never touched on the mandatory book deal. I actually read a really good article about how to go about that once.

    Wouldn’t you know, here it is!

    http://shatterfaced.com/2008/11/09/how-to-write-your-first-polarizing-political-book.aspx

  2. Nora

    Excellent recipe…just one question…shaken or stirred?
    Keep up the writing!

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