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Media Matters

Aren’t Media Pundits Supposed to Be Actual Experts?

We have come to rely on 24-hour news for information and analysis. But cable news networks are increasingly packing airtime with commentators based on their social media followings instead of their expertise. And it shows.

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A pandemic. Indictments and legal proceedings. A political scandal or big election news. When a big story breaks, we grab the TV remote to get live updates and expert commentary and analysis from one of the cable TV news channels. 

A Trump indictment? We hang onto every word from the expert legal analysts to explain what happened, what to expect, and what it means. Former federal prosecutors and U.S. Attorneys, law professors, former FBI officials—they know the drill because they’ve spent their careers in the arena.

We trust them.

For political news, analysis, and explanations, we assume the people who are booked on the cable networks, quoted in print or even invited on podcasts have been making their living in politics—working in campaigns or congressional offices, or as pollsters or as journalists on the politics beat.

Similarly, we expect that when tuning in to hear about what is going on with the economy, what is on the horizon, and what we need to know going forward so that we can make informed financial or business decisions, that the “experts” on TV are, in fact, economists or financial advisors at the top of their game.

When the issue at hand is literally a matter of life or death as is and was the case with COVID and the pandemic, how confident should we be that those on the other side of the TV screen are qualified—let alone the best and most experienced—to inform and advise us on how to prevent, treat, and survive the deadly and highly infectious disease?

Most experts go through rigorous and competitive vetting and training to reach the top of their respective fields. What is the criteria to become an “expert” for cable TV news these days? Are non-experts getting a platform they don’t deserve? 

COVID misinformation or  “guesses” from a pundit who is not directly associated with that field is deadly. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a veteran immunologist and the long-serving, now retired director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), saw his personal safety and his position become  threatened when non-experts gained credibility and traction as they disseminated disinformation about COVID.

World-renowned epidemiologist Peter Hotez M.D., Ph.D., a leading infectious disease expert known for his contributions to COVID research, published The Deadly Rise of Anti-science: A Scientist’s Warning.  Dr. Hotez was among the few pundits on the cable news channels who had actually been working to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Many health professionals tried their best to get it right, even if they did not specialize in that field. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and NBC’s Dr. Vin Gupta met the moment on the basics, breaking down the information as it became available. Then there were those like Dr. Joseph Mercolo, a “natural health” proponent, who were often driven by harmful political or monetary agendas. Mercolo capitalized on the pandemic to grow his business and movement, becoming one of the most dangerous disseminators of COVID doubt and disinformation. FOX News hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson promoted skepticism on the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, playing to the hard-core anti-vaccination base of the GOP.

According to Dr. Hotez, “Those who tended to weaponize the health and science communications as talking heads were generally not true experts. They were not virologists, vaccinologists or even infectious disease experts. Instead, they tended to be generalist physicians or subject matter experts in other branches of medicine and science.” 

While it may sound like splitting hairs to some, the distinction is important because, as Dr. Hotez explains, “They had no accountability to their peers or they didn’t care about the accuracy of the information. The confusion was exploited by some with nefarious agendas and dangerous consequences.” 

In addition to his work in COVID research, and his book on anti-science, Dr. Hotez is on staff and a fellow at universities, think tanks, and hospitals in Texas due to his virology expertise. 

You know who isn’t? Former comedian Joe Rogan, who now hosts an extremely popular conservative talk-show-format podcast. 

And conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an anti-vax activist with a famous last name who is now running as an independent in the 2024 Presidential Election.

After tearing apart Dr. Hotez on his talk show, and on the heels of attacks by Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, who called the doctor a “criminal,” Rogan challenged the scientist to “debate” RFK Jr. on the podcast. This put Dr. Hotez’s safety at risk and necessitated the involvement of law enforcement, including the FBI—similar to what Dr. Fauci experienced. Not only would it have been ridiculously inappropriate, but it would have been irresponsible and dangerous for Dr. Hotez to validate Rogan’s and RFK Jr.’s misinformation by engaging with them. 

The propensity for amplifying the opinions of non-experts, and putting them on the same panel or platform as legitimate specialists in their field is part and parcel of a growing cultural hostility toward intellectuals. Conservative populists dismiss expertise as being “elitist,” equating or even preferring and promoting the uneducated opinions of their popular conservative media personalities with solid, peer-reviewed, scientific findings and conclusions from professionals, specialists, and experts.

The late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” But with cable TV news producers needing to feed an insatiable public who are hooked on discord, drama, and the need to make sense of it all, that sense of entitlement has been overfed and fattened. Nowhere is this more on display on a daily basis than in politics, which consumes the vast majority of the 24-hour news channels.  

If you’ve not run or worked on campaigns, Capitol Hill, or State Houses, or covered politics on the ground as a reporter, is your political analysis worthy of being labeled “expertise”? Polling analysis matters. But if you don’t understand polls—which ones are good or bad, why certain polls are conducted and made public—you may not be giving useful, or accurate analysis for viewers, donors, or even candidates. Media promotes poll panic because it’s entertaining. But are they inadvertently putting a thumb on the scale?

Democratic strategist Rachel Bitecofer, Ph.D., a political analyst and author of the upcoming book Hit ’Em Where It Hurts: How To Save Democracy By Beating Republicans At Their Own Game says booking experienced, tested political experts on the cable networks is “very important” and notes that “people parrot what they hear other experts say and this includes ‘analysts’ who don’t have formal education and training on the topics they are analyzing. This creates very powerful frames that end up as accepted ‘wisdom’ but which political scientists recognize as wrong.”

Not only do inexperienced political strategists on TV make the job of the legit political strategists much harder, the soundbites and guessing games also have practical consequences. “One of the most common areas for this is the behavior of independents or ‘swing voters’ and these myths end up having powerful effects on electioneering strategies and tactics that end up deployed in the field,” says Bitecofer, adding that “‘experts’ ’ misguided analyses of swing voters have cost Democrats many winnable elections.”

With literally tens of thousands of experienced congressional staffers, campaign strategists, and political journalists a mere email or phone call away, is there any excuse for someone with literally zero political experience to be elevated to a “political strategist” on TV?  We’ve seen what happens when Kayleigh McEnany, a person with no political experience beyond a couple internships, spring-boarded from TV “political strategist” to White House press secretary. She became little more than a Trump puppet who routinely lied about matters small and large, including issues regarding COVID and the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential Election and insurrection. 

How are these booking decisions made? Is there a vetting process? Or are other factors and considerations involved?

A former prime-time senior producer for several cable networks, who asked to remain anonymous, explains, “It’s about finding the Venn diagram of people who are credible, that your host likes/wants, and that are available. The challenge may certainly be there for much smaller outlets, and for less experienced bookers who are just trying to ‘fill slots.’” She notes that this is inherently confusing for viewers because “there is a blurring of fact/opinion in so many outlets that people feel like they’re watching the news, but they’re really just reinforcing their already held beliefs.” 

She concedes that some guests are booked on criteria other than their expertise, like a big X/Twitter following, or some other measure of fame or notoriety, which can outweigh a light résumé. “Having a higher profile certainly helps in exposure and getting booked on television. Being a polished TV talker can be as important as having the expertise.” 

While seemingly benign, the expertise gap or, in some cases, a complete void, can land a dangerous novice a spot behind the White House press room podium with no agenda other than loyalty to the man who put her there. Most White House press secretaries see their role as being accountable to both the press and the president. Consider President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, who served when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, as an example of a contrast to McEnany. McCurry had enough respect for his profession and the White House press corps to show up at the podium with a paper bag over his head as penance after he acknowledged he’d fallen short of presenting full and accurate information. 

Economist Bruce Bartlett—a former Republican who served during the administrations of both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—began appearing on cable TV more than 20 years ago while working for a conservative think tank. “I was usually paired opposite someone like myself from a ‘liberal’ think tank such as Brookings,” he says. “The problem was that there were no fireworks because we respected each other, knew the data and the literature, and really didn’t disagree very much.” 

But TV needs fireworks. And over time those “liberal” think tank economists were replaced by people labeled “Democratic strategist” who were not economists, got basic information wrong, and Bartlett spent most of the segment refuting them rather than making his own salient points. 

Blurring the lines within professions is as problematic as blurring the lines between professions. Podiatrists aren’t cardiologists. Gardeners aren’t farmers. Corporate lawyers aren’t federal prosecutors, DAs, or FBI investigators.

According to the American Bar Association, one in every 12 D.C. residents is a lawyer. New York City is also lousy with lawyers. This does not make them credible or qualified to provide top-tier analysis on the multitude of legal issues facing Donald Trump and his allies.  A mergers and acquisitions lawyer with 1 million X/Twitter followers is not adequate criteria for a legal pundit, no matter how badly TV executives want those followers to translate into viewers. The mere profession “lawyer” should not be confused with people in league with top-tier law professors, former federal prosecutors, U.S. Attorneys, DAs, or FBI agents whose careers have been spent immersed in the subject area and who are far better positioned to give critical information, clarification, and vital nuance right out of the gate. Real world experience, one’s record, and accountability matter.

Is there a remedy that would aid busy producers and bookers with an overflow of potential guests to vet? PBS is currently the only TV media with an ombudsman. Most have a list of “standards and practices,” but guest booking standards tend to fall outside of that purview. Perhaps professional organizations within the various professions can be encouraged to establish guidelines of basic criteria for what constitutes expertise in specific subject areas. 

Rather than a luxury, establishing guidelines and guardrails, and monitoring “expertise,” has become a necessity.

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