What happens when reporters become as famous as the people they cover?
Do their sources dry up and blow away, fearing that the spotlight that shines on their journalistic contacts will expose them, causing them to lose face or even their jobs?
Or do their sources become part of a new cocktail party clique of reporters and pundits with book deals, agents, and television network consultancy contracts?
With more and more outlets, including 24/7 television news networks, vying for smaller and smaller pieces of the pie, executives found they had time to fill between “breaking” news events.
Passing time with interviews by “experts” in politics, health, business, the military, and other specialized fields provide the appearance of the kind of in-depth analysis that print journalists traditionally have condemned television for lacking.
Where does television get these “experts?”
In Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, Eric Alterman names several publications, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Republic. Today, he could add syndicated radio show hosts and writers for Internet sites such as Salon.com and Huffingtonpost.com.
Of the individuals, Alterman notes, “The punditocracy, like what used to be the Soviet politburo, has full-fledged members, candidate members, and membership hopefuls. Not all pundits are invited into the punditocracy, and not all members of the punditocracy are professional pundits. As with the ex-Communists, relationships are in a state of constant flux and rarely conform to an easily discernable hierarchy.”
Sometimes the punditocracy seems like a revolving-door employment agency much like the so-called “coaching carousel” in the National Football League. Veterans of political campaigns now command substantial incomes either as interviewers or pundits.
The late “Meet the Press” host and NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert worked for former New York governor Mario Cuomo and the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Donna Brazile, a frequent contributor to ABC’s “This Week” and CNN, ran Al Gore’s 2000 campaign for president.
The host of “This Week,” George Stephanopoulos, was a top operative in the Clinton campaign and a former Clinton Administration official. Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” is a former employee of the late ex-U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Only in recent years have media critics begun to pierce the façade of analysis to question the value of the punditocracy to the body politic.
The editors of Media Lens write, “Media journalists should not be viewed as celebrities, as gods floating far above ‘ordinary’ people. Journalists are, or should be, servants of the people, selected not for their high glamour, good looks and made-over perfection, but for their critical thought, rationality, and above all, for their willingness to resist the seductions of power, status, and wealth”
Thus, the celebrity journalists’ commitment to the corporate media kudzu of television, radio, newspapers, books, and the Internet continues as the personal bank accounts grow fatter and fatter and the cultural hegemony of star worship is perpetuated.
With television’s emphasis on appearance over substance, the truism that “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people” has been emended to read “Washington is Hollywood for uniquely connected people.”