Political punditry as an industry—historically one of the most influential industries in America—operates on exactly that kind of fakery. The anchors and reporters supply the facts. The pundit fills in the details, applies a measure of expertise to the facts, shapes them, explains their importance, and, most importantly by far, offers predictions. Our collective appetite for fortune-telling is insatiable (e.g. the irrepressible absurdity of horoscope peddling), but desire isn’t predicated on ready access to its object. Put another way, our oracles have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.
By now I think the notion that TV news programs function primarily as anything other than entertainment can be casually dismissed. Still, they are overwhelmingly where we go to get our news—however ridiculous they become, they remain a central facet of American political and cultural life. The American Press Institute released a survey in March in which almost 90 percent of respondents said they get their news at least in part from TV, and that we prefer, above any other medium, 24-hour news channels for information about foreign affairs, politics, social issues, and the economy (newspapers, by contrast, were the preferred source for local news, culture, and education). A Gallup poll conducted last June concurred—55 percent listed TV as their primary source for news, 21 percent the Internet, 9 percent newspapers and magazines, and 6 percent were still sticking it out with radio.
That appearing on a TV news program indicates professional seriousness is one of the few great American ironies with claws still intact. Pundits are constantly, and seriously, wrong. There are entire books to this effect. Psychologist Philip Tetlock, in Expert Political Judgment, took 27,000 specific predictions from 284 political experts and found that, on the aggregate, a prediction chosen at random by a computer was as likely to prove correct as the expert’s. Going a step further, Tetlock found that the more famous the expert, the less likely they were to be right. The very qualities that make for a good talking head—decisiveness, steadfast adherence to an ideological framework—make for bad predictions.