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In search of the honest political commentator

Noting that a great many politicos have confidently declared that Obamacare was doomed to inglorious failure over the past few weeks, months, and years, our own E. J. Dionne opens his new column with a question that sounds almost quaint:

Is there any accountability in American politics for being completely wrong? Is there any cost to those who say things that turn out not to be true and then, when their fabrications or false predictions are exposed, calmly move on to concocting new claims as if they had never made the old ones?

It's a very valid question, of course. In fact I would say it's the question that a great many prominent people should be expected to answer before they go on to give their opinions about anything new. What makes it quaint is that we know that the answer is "no." No, there is no accountability, certainly not in American political opinion writing.

We know this because a number of Dionne's colleagues at the Washington Post and his fellow opinion columnists at the New York Times -- to say nothing of those who write for openly propagandistic outlets like the Wall Street Journal op-ed page or the Weekly Standard -- have demonstrated time and again that no concerns about accountability constrain them.

Of course, Dionne must know this; he writes for the Washington Post, which also employs Jennifer Rubin and George Will and Charles Krauthammer -- to name a few columnists who have been caught deliberately misrepresenting facts and/or claiming to hold opinions that contradict previously stated principles for obviously partisan reasons. These things get noticed and called out by other, more honest commentators, and eventually Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post's opinion editor, is asked to comment. And Hiatt, when he responds, waves away concerns about accountability (by which I mean documented cases of out-and-out wrongness) as impertinent attacks on the people he supposedly pays to offer their well informed, carefully considered, intelligently argued opinions to readers in the nation's capital and throughout the country. His defenses, and those of other negligent gatekeepers like him, depend on an interpretation of "opinion" that makes accuracy irrelevant.

Remember when Bill Keller used his column to pick apart the way a particular woman with cancer was coping with her illness, and it turned out that, in addition to insensitivity and illogic, his column was built on premises that were mostly wrong? The most the New York Times bothered to do about that was append a correction about one of those incorrect facts (the incidental one, not the ones that completely invalidated his "argument"), leaving their poor "public editor," Margaret Sullivan, to weakly acknowledge that "As a columnist, Mr. Keller – by definition – has a great deal of free rein.... It’s a columnist’s job, in short, to have an opinion and to speak it freely." Is it not also their job to base that opinion on accurate facts, or to speak it honestly and intelligently as well as freely? You would think so, since anybody can speak their opinions "freely." If we're paying someone to form opinions and granting them a prominent position from which to speak, it should go without saying that their opinions merit greater scrutiny pre-publication and greater accountability afterward. But they don't. Officially, they don't.

So keep that in mind when you're reading Maureen Dowd or whoever: Nobody reads those columns to make sure they stand up, or make sense, or accurately represent the facts they allude to. Being an opinion columnist means never having to worry that anyone will challenge ("intrude on," as Sullivan put it) your published opinions. "By definition"!

One of the reasons I love Alex Pareene's annual Hack List so much is that he writes it in part to remind us all of this basic fact about American political discourse. Here's his 2012 writeup explaining why "the Washington Post has the worst opinion section of any major newspaper in the country." He concluded:

The Post opinion section exemplifies the most aggravating feature of the American punditocracy: that there are simply never any professional consequences for being constantly wrong or dishonest.

No professional consequences doesn't just mean that newspapers don't run retractions, or get back to ("intrude on") George Will with questions like "Are you aware that you're misrepresenting the conclusions of that climate-change study?" It also means that people like Will and Krauthammer and Peggy Noonan -- and not just columnists, but people whose inconsistency is more alarming, like say John McCain -- keep getting booked on "serious" TV shows to offer their opinions as though we can all count on their sober wisdom.

When Jonathan Chait wrote about Charles Krauthammer's unacknowledged reversal on judicial filibusters, he said, "Intellectual consistency is a basic value for political commentators.... Writing columns about politics isn’t that easy of a job, but one part of the job that is really easy is 'not being a giant partisan hack.'” He's right about the second part (he suggests a Google-based best practice for opinionators that should help), but is he right about the first part? Is intellectual consistency a basic value for commentators? In terms of self-respect, absolutely, but not, I would say, in terms of professional status.

One of the reasons I admire Dionne and value his opinions is that he keeps behaving as though accountability were part of the job description, even when the opposite is very clearly true. He knows that the answer to his opening questions is no. But he also knows that it's an important question, or it would be in an ideal world, and the Obamacare "debate" is just the latest manifestation of that fact.

But enough negativity. E. J. Dionne is not the only worthwhile political opinionator, though (for obvious reasons) he's the newspaper columnist most consistently on my radar. Jonathan Chait is someone who obviously values intellectual consistency and basic accountability, which is a big part of why I find him so worth reading and citing. In the published-in-the-paper category, Ross Douthat strikes me as someone who strives to hold himself to a high standard of integrity (sometimes, I would say, to the detriment of his ability to articulate a straightforward argument). I don't always agree with him, but I do respect him. Who else deserves a mention? Which commentators seem to take their jobs seriously and hold themselves accountable, even when they don't have to? Whose opinions do you trust, or at least respect, and why?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

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Jonathan Cohn

MIchael Gerson

David Ignatius

John Judis

Stephen Chapman

Jonah Goldberg has been growing on me

I don't read them through the professional-colleague filter, so maybe this isn't a credible list to someone in the biz.  As a consumer, though, I find that they come across as rational and objective, willing to accept facts that complicate their preferences, and their points seem well-argued.  I can't claim that they hold themselves accountable - I don't read them frequently or closely enough to know for certain.  But if the standard is, "keeps behaving as though accountability were part of the job description" then I believe these writers come across as adhering to it. 

David Broder used to publish a mea culpa column at the end of every year.  Perhaps once a year isn't sufficient, but the self-examination was admirable.

I do think there is something to the notion that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a little mind.  I think we should let opinion columnists change their minds over time, but perhaps they owe their readers an explanation when they do - and we can hope that it's more compelling than, "Now my guys are in power so I want them to do it."


Nicholas Kristof of the NYT, Paul Krugman, Lawrence O'Donnell formerly of the LA Times.

Krugman explicitly admits it when his predictions have been wrong, and he holds other economists' feet to the fire when they don't.  They usually ignore him, of course.  Even when the economy has blown up in their faces.

As to the Hiatt opinion, I hope it doesn't reflect that of his new boss Jeff Bezos.  The Post used to be a very reliable paper. 

Thomas Edsall in the NY Times is the best op-ed writer I can think of, hands down. He blends sophisticated analysis with wide readability. He's never shrill, and his MO is exploratory rather than explanatory.

I know he can be rage-inducing, but I also loved Stanley Fish's column in the Times, while it lasted.

Ta-Nahesi Coates is always lucid and forceful.

I wish I could think of a woman off the top of my head, but none springs to mind. Shame on me, and shame on these news institutions for not doing a better job nurturing them.

I should also say in defense of *part* of what Hiatt said that, yes, it's quite possible, even usual, for two different people to start off from different premises and then reach conclusions which contradict each other, and this alone does not imply that at least one of them is lying.  It only implies that one of them is wrong.  People can honestly disagree, though you wouldn't know it from the plethora of snarky accusations of hypocrisy and lying the blogs.

As to consistency over a life-time, *everyone* makes mistakes, and God-forbid that people should not admit their errors!  Sometimes -- no, often -- inconsistency is a virtue, and the admission of error is humility.  What makes so many people cling to their old opinions?  I fear it's a natural inclination having to do with from tribal allegiance and tribal thinking.  Tribes rarely change their minds, and they don't permit inconsistency in tribe members. 

reminds me of the study I read a few days ago saying that even if any group of people were presented with objectively provable facts,  their previous perception would not allow them to change their minds...much less "acknowledge the difference" (?) 

John W, --

Some Piagetians showed years ago that a goodly number of people are not bothered by inconsistencies.  Take the classic example of Walt Whitman's, "Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then, I contradict myself".  This is in a poem which many consider to be a very, very great one.  (I think Whitman's case is an example off what Zaehner calls "panenhenic mysticism", a sort of temporary madness.)

Religion News Service reports that Anti-Semitice incidents continue to decline in the US. While the Los Angelos Times reports that: "Attacks on Jews show a troubling increase Although overall anti-Semitic incidents declined 19% nationwide from 2012 to 2013, there were 31 assaults on Jews last year compared to 17 in 2012.

Depends on what myth you prefer.


Mark Shields and David Brooks paired on PBS Newshour.

Paul Krugman is very opinionated but now and again he corrects himself or adds new info.

John Cassidy of the New Yorker. Good on economics.

James Stewart at the NYTimes on Saturday. Business columnist who shares the spot with Floyd Norris on Friday. Both seem straight up and accurate to me.

Gerry Seib and David Wessel of the WSJ are both good; Wessel is good on TV as well.


A NYT op-ed notice guaranteed to produce pure euphoria:

“Maureen Dowd is off today."

Ann Olivier,

Consistency means acknowledging changes rather than clinging to old opinions. The problem is when people change their reasoning solely based on what conclusion they want to reach.

From a Catholic stance:

John Allen (usually admits when he is off the mark)

Arroyo (EWTN) - just the opposite; never admit to being wrong because he is never wrong

Wm. Donohue (same category as Arroyo)

Most diocesan catholic papers - bishops write editorials and like George Wil, etc. are never held to account for what they spew in their catholic rags

If you love words you have to like Maureen Down. She is acerbic. But sometimes it is the only way to get people's attention. Considering that both parties lie constantly she is really essential. The White House and other politicos read her column religiously. Hoping that she ignored them. No one can bring deceivers to their knees better than she can. Very few can turn a phrase or have such cogency in their language. 

I mean who else quotes "Juvenal" and Dick Cheney in the same paragraph? When she nails someone it is for real. Though few will admit it, she expresses what many feel. 

Whatever you may think of her, there are few more competent. 

Maureen Dowd. 


I haven't seen Kathleen Parker's name. She is usually fair and reasonable, alhough I don't always agree with her.

David Brooks and Michael Gershon are always even-handed and civil. Robert Reich and Paul Krugman are often lopsided in their arguments, but most of what they say is verifiable.

I read Jonah Goldberg and Charles Krauthammer for penance, and George Will for his three-dollar words and in spite of his sophistry and convoluted reasoning.

Speaking of pundits who aren't wise, Bill O'Reilly was on the Tonight Show tonight.  Jimmie Fallon asked him if he's a religious man.  O'Reilly replied, "No, I'm not a religious man.  But I go to church on Sundays.  I can't get behind on atonning".   

I still miss Molly Ivins. She was funny but not mean-spirited.

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