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.