Pundits, Heal Thyselves!

Suppose your doctor misdiagnoses your condition – he tells you that six months hence you’ll be stone-cold dead, pushing up the daisies. As it turns out, however, you did not have leukemia after all, but were only suffering from Lyme disease. Would you not consider switching practitioners?

Say your stockbroker’s picks leave you with a portfolio more volatile than Vesuvius and an eviscerated bank account. Short of buying shares in a Baghdad bed and breakfast, he did everything wrong. Would you still entrust him with your money?

Imagine you’re a fisherman. Your local weatherman predicts calm, but you lose your boat in treacherous seas. (Thankfully your life is spared.) Then he forecasts a storm, but the sea is as calm as glass, and you miss out on the biggest catch ever. How long before you stop trusting his “expertise”?

These analogies came to mind as I listened to a different sort of failed “expert,” for whom public goodwill runs eternal. This particular “boffin” was spluttering on Fox News about the trumped-up case against Martha Stewart, admitting openly that he too had called for her head. He now conceded that the government’s brief was seriously flawed. Too many people, not least a federal expert witness, had lied.

I’ll be damned, but if this unwily fox’s predictive powers are so poor, why was he back on the box to bloviate about his blunders? It’s not as if there weren’t alternatives. The Mises Institute did not hold me back on the topic of Martha’s martyrdom, or Bill Anderson, or James Ostrowski. There were others (although none as diligent about privileging the natural law).

Then I got to thinking about the neoconservative talking twits. They’ve been wrong all along about the invasion of Iraq. They’ve consistently dished out dollops of ahistoric, unintuitive, and reckless verbiage. Yet they’ve retained their status as philosopher-kings.

Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens (undeniably a writer of considerable flair and originality), George Will and Tucker Carlson (both of whom seem to have conveniently recanted at the eleventh hour), Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Mark Steyn, Max Boot, John Podhoretz, Andrew Sullivan – they all grabbed the administration’s bluff and ran with it. Like the good Trotskyites many of them were, once they tasted blood, they writhed like sharks. Compounding their scent-impaired bloodhound act was their utter ignorance of geopolitical realities – they insisted our soldiers would be greeted with blooms and bonbons and that an Iraqi democracy would rise from the torrid sands of Mesopotamia.

Their innumerable errors and flagrant hubris did not prevent the neoconservatives from managing to marginalize their competitors on the Right: the intrepid Pat Buchanan and his American Conservative; the quixotic Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. of LewRockwell.com, and Antiwar.com. (Plus this column, of course). Unfortunately for America, there hasn’t been a horror in Iraq that these prescients did not foretell well in advance.

Some conscientious objectors in the halls of power tried to sound the alarm, but, like Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, and Secretary of the Army Thomas White, they were dismissed for mutiny and generally mocked by the mediacrats. Former general and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft; former Centcom Commander Norman Schwarzkopf; former NATO Commander Wesley Clark; former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, and Marine Corps Commandant James Jones were all cool to the war. Retired General Anthony Zinni, distinguished warrior, diplomat and card-carrying Republican, warned Congress against the “wrong war at the wrong time.” The neocons dismissed them all as “yesterday’s men.”

So why are insightful commentators whose observations have predictive power generally barred from the national discourse, while false neoconservative prophets are called back for encores?

The answer will not please admirers of the late James Burnham, who blame scheming elites for any popularly accepted project they dislike, be it unwarranted wars or welfare. Contrary to Burnham, elites, media included, can rule only if they represent ideologies that are widely embraced, as the invasion of Iraq was. Today’s news is not what it used to be because a dumbed-down population, well represented in newsrooms, cannot distinguish evidence from assertion and fact from feel-good fiction. News is now nothing but a slick, demand-driven product designed to please – not inform – the populace.

Fox News was able to create the perception of a parallel universe in Iraq replete with big (nuclear) bangs and miraculously materializing al-Qaida terrorists because its Hollywood-inspired vision resonated with viewers. The ratings provided proof. By popular demand, MSNBC, CNN, and the New York Times (This means you, Judith Miller) adopted a similar faux patriotism devoid of skepticism and serenely accepting of every silly White House claim.

Replacing incompetent stockbrokers and doctors is essential if serious financial losses or even death are to be avoided. On the other hand, the opportunity costs associated with consumption of toxic punditry are low or non-existent. Having their worldview affirmed, even affirmed in a parallel universe, is worth a lot to news consumers, who are keener to avoid the pains of cognitive dissonance than to get the real deal.

Read more by Ilana Mercer