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The Making of the Punditocracy
By Eric Alterman
HarperCollins, 352 pages, $23.00

Eric Alterman has made a name for himself around Washington charting the rise of what he calls the "punditocracy" — the "tiny group of highly visible political pontificators who make their living offering 'inside political opinions and forecasts' in the elite national media." In this book, he argues that this small circle of political columnists and television commentators is the closest thing the capital has to an aristocracy. The goal of the pundits is not to inform the public but rather to consolidate their power, advance their status, and dominate as much air time as possible.

The word "pundit" derives from the Sanskrit pandita, meaning scholar. It entered the American vernacular during the mid-1800s, but was first used in a political context in 1923, in reference to Walter Lippmann. Alterman considers that especially fitting since Lippmann figures as the prototype of the informed opinion-maker who "came to be viewed as almost a separate branch of government."

Alterman describes Lippmann's legacy against the backdrop of a new kind of journalism that emerged at the turn of the century. In 1896 Adolph S. Ochs began marketing The New York Times as a paper of impersonal, objective record, and not long thereafter newspapers across the nation followed suit. A new ethic of objectivity emerged which separated news and opinion, but at the expense of context. Consequently, it was left to the opinion-writers to interpret the news. In time, figures like Lippmann, Joseph Alsop and James Reston filled this void. Lippmann described political analysis as an "essential service" to citizens: it would do "what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do but has not the time or the interest to do for himself."

A new generation of pundits emerged during the late 1960s, following Lippmann's retirement. Figures like George Will, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak and John McLaughlin, symbolized a new kind of Washington insider who turned opinion and pseudo-expeprtise into fame and profit on television panel programs. Today these men represent, in Alterman's view, a band of highly visible, overcompensated political pontificators who both exemplify and are obsessed with Washington's insider political culture. By virtue of their access to television, as well as their adoption of television production values and their monopoly of opinion, pundits now exercise an influence out of all proportion to the shallow and bombastic quality of their discourse.

Alterman sees a very clear connection between the decline in the standards of punditry and the decline of American political debate in general. "We lack the ability, as a nation, to conduct a simple, sensible, and civil conversation about the choices we face," he writes, and it is the debate among the pundits on TV, "rather than any semblance of a democratic one, that determines the parameters of political discourse in the nation today." Politicians, he argues, see themselves as answerable first and foremost to the punditocracy, then to the public, since the commentators always get the last word. This means, in effect, that the American people have become eclipsed from the dialogue, despite the well-documented fact that they consistently view issues in broader terms than political pundits. Alterman concludes that "we cannot begin to solve our problems unless we can first learn how to talk about them."

Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.