The Mainstream Media’s Palace Guard

In theory, punditry is supposed to offer a forum for political analysis and debate from a range of perspectives. In practice, it’s little more than an exercise in defending the self-serving orthodoxies of a privileged few.

Maeve Reston, Rob Stutzman, Bill Carrick, Buffy Wicks and Bill Burton at the 'CNN: How Democrats Can Emerge From the Wilderness' panel during Politicon at Pasadena Convention Center on July 29, 2017 in Pasadena, California. Joshua Blanchard / Getty Images for Politicon

Last week, a video made by independent producer Matt Orfalea unexpectedly went viral thanks to its evocative juxtaposing of the elite media’s depiction of Bernie Sanders — as a perpetually angry curmudgeon and scold — with an altogether more earnest and unfiltered portrait of a politician who continues to inspire millions in spite of what regularly gets said about him on cable news and written in marquee newspapers. Its emotional resonance notwithstanding, the video’s real power comes from its radical contrast of ordinary people living in the real world with elite pundits inhabiting a very different and altogether more insular one.

Officially at least, the role of mainstream punditry — the kind of analysis that tends to be featured on major networks and in the op-ed sections of influential newspapers — is to provide commentary on the state of politics, ideally through an array of independent-minded perspectives on political news that reflect a wide range of thoughtful opinion.

Virtually anyone who’s spent time watching cable news or reading the opinion pages in major newspapers intuitively recognizes some gulf between this idealized self-image and reality, but Orfalea’s effort drives home better than anything in recent memory how much of elite punditry — an ostensibly open-minded, fact-based, and inclusive enterprise committed to intellectually curious debate — is characterized by both stupefying uniformity and breathtaking narcissism.

How else are we to describe a group of people who regularly pantomime an air of thoughtful independence yet seem so unwavering in their commitment to the orthodoxies and received wisdom of their own tiny, exclusive club?

As in 2016, the pundit class’s treatment of Sanders thus far has been an entirely paint-by-numbers affair characterized at once by deafening negativity and subtle meta-argument designed to discredit the candidate, his supporters, his policy agenda, or some combination of all three.

It’s often said among people sympathetic to him that members of the media “hate” Bernie Sanders. While this is undoubtedly the case, at least in a sense, the overriding impression one gets — from Orfalea’s video and elsewhere — suggests a posture almost too instinctual to be hatred. While members of the pundit class transparently detest what Sanders and his supporters represent, their reactions suggest something more patronizing is at work, akin to the reflexive spasms or scratching by which someone might try to relieve a nasty itch or irritation that just won’t go away.

It’s a dismissive posture born of class biases, both big and small, that collectively construe democratic politics like a sporting event — invested with great significance on a level that nonetheless remains mostly symbolic. The average cable news pundit might despise Donald Trump for Crimes Against the Republic but ultimately has little personal stake in their outcome (save perhaps benefiting from a larcenous tax cut or two). By the same token, most people writing in marquee opinion sections are probably served just fine by America’s morally bankrupt health-care regime and aren’t drowning in student debt or falling asleep worrying about how they’re going to pay the rent.

When such a shallow conception of politics collides with the aims of large-scale corporate enterprise, the results are unlikely to produce a political discourse representative of average people, let alone their material interests. As Nathan Robinson has written on the media’s attitude toward the Sanders campaign:

The reason the media doesn’t understand Sanders . . . is in part that they do not understand the problems he is speaking about or why they matter. To cover him fairly would require them to re-examine their values and priorities. And that wouldn’t be good for ratings.

The profit motive aside, the insular character of corporate media circles often torques things even further toward a discourse that’s little more than a kind of elite navel-gazing, wherein the class biases of extraordinary privileged people become the default mode for thinking about the rules, etiquette, and scope of democracy. Virtually everything, from how elections are supposed to be fought to the scale of change they can be expected to bring about, comes to be seen through the narrowest lens imaginable — right down to trivial minutiae like how politicians are supposed to look or sound.

Chris Cillizza, CNN’s bespectacled politics dork, therefore seems more outraged whenever Sanders raises his voice to talk about inequality or health care than he’s ever been on behalf of people living in poverty or dying because they couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Nate Silver, the media’s resident numbers guy, thinks Sanders’s huge donor pool is mostly insignificant — despite both him and his website expressing decidedly different opinions about the importance of grassroots fundraising on several occasions.

As Sanders and his record-shattering army of donors and volunteers break every established rule of what can and cannot succeed in American politics, it’s poll-challenged candidates like Amy Klobuchar who win plaudits for their bold realism (otherwise known as the explicit, patronizing rejection of policies and ideas that might even marginally improve things for the average person) and even their supposed “electability.” In a moment of either breathtaking cluelessness or accidental self-awareness, it was Silver himself who recently declared of a poll suggesting Klobuchar would perform badly against Trump: “Klobuchar probably has one of the best electability arguments in the field, so the fact that she’s tied for last here is a sign that voters don’t really think about electability in the same way that political analysts do.” The jokes practically write themselves.

Rigorous studies like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent have explained the media as a function of its political economy. But stated in the plainest of terms, elite members of the pundit class are simply guardians of orthodoxy; the self-appointed gatekeepers of what it’s permissible to discuss, who it’s permissible to criticize, and which narrative constitutes the approved script by which all of us are destined to live.

Political analysis is, by its very nature, an imperfect enterprise requiring inference, supposition, and speculation. In politics, as in life, all of us are occasionally guilty of bending the facts around the narrative we hope to be true. The role of pundits, and especially pundits qua pollsters, however, supposedly exists for that very reason: to introduce the occasional dose of reality and keep us all grounded in objective metrics so we don’t stray too far into the realm of fantasy.

But what other word is there for the reality most elite pundits themselves seem to inhabit: a mystical kingdom where America Never Stopped Being Great, people feel warm loyalty to large private insurance conglomerates, mass politics rarely deviates from a narrow and mostly predictable set of rules, the country’s most popular politician is an anachronism languishing on the fringes, and the political preferences of blue-collar swing voters in Ohio and Michigan always seem to align with those of condo-dwelling patricians in the Beltway and on the Upper East Side?

At best, elite punditry is an exercise in confirmation bias and groupthink; a media palace guard that exists to discipline public opinion and ensure that received wisdom about the desirable and the possible is obstinately maintained. At its worst, it’s little more than the narcissistic projection of a tiny, privileged class that mistakes its shared beliefs and interests for objective reality.

Elite pundits, perhaps more than anyone, are fond of lecturing their critics with the cliché that the insular bubbles they inhabit don’t represent real life. Just for once, they might try looking in the mirror.