The Dilemma of the Pundit with Nothing to Say

I admire Kevin Drum’s candor about the dilemma of having to write a regular column when you don’t necessarily have anything profound to say as often as the column appears. I believe this problem affects some of the “hacks” that Alex Pareene singles out for lousy work (I didn’t agree with all his list, but some of his choices are dead on).

When I wrote an occasional column about health and medicine for the San Francisco Chronicle, my (truly wonderful) editor was always asking me to write more often. But it was only every 3 weeks or so when I felt I had something sufficiently important to write about, and, had enough time to do the research and prose polishing to give it a proper analysis. The only way I could have complied with a weekly deadline is to write less well about less important things.

The columnist/pundit’s dilemma is that every call to comment on this or that news item is a chance to push their own brand, and every published column is a payday. They thus have no incentive to say “You know, I don’t know enough about that to appear on your TV show and comment about it” or “Frankly, I don’t have a good column in me this week so I will pass”. I think that’s why many of us readers come away from some well-known columnists’ writing now and then with the sense that absolutely nothing of substance has been said.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “The Dilemma of the Pundit with Nothing to Say”

  1. Another problem with columnists is that almost all of them started as journalists, and, as a result, have little to teach us, and their spouting off becomes predictable. Paul Krugman is the only exception who comes to mind (except for NY Times web-only columnists, such as Stanley Fish and Robert Wright). Krugman's column has convinced me that columnists ought to have had careers as economists, lawyers, scientists, philosophers, etc.

  2. The early advice to bloggers was to post frequently.

    In the war for Net eyeballs the audience needed constant refresh.

    No doubt that was once true.

    As the Internet has matured, ever so slowly, things are starting to settle.

    So for example consider James Howard Kunstler's blog:

    He posts once a week. Every Monday. Period.

    And since that one post is a rich, dynamic word-ore his blog thrives.

    The man can flat out write…

    Which is all to say: Less is almost always better.

    And that is a lesson every generation must relearn again and again.

  3. There are two rather obvious strategies to overcome the frequency challenge. (And, frankly, I would count myself a friggin' genius if I had something to say, on my own motion, once a year, let alone once in three weeks.)

    Henry cites one such strategy: mine the accumulation of thoughtful experience and decades of plodding through some body of knowledge. Career journalists, as Henry says, rarely have such experience to mine, which is why they seem so painfully superficial. In the spirit of the one-eyed man ruling in the kingdom of the blind, a couple of years as a political operative can elevate a pundit to the first tier.

    The other is strategy is to react: commentary and opinion are part of a political dialectic, anyway. So, if you don't have a thought of your own to expound, take someone reasonably smart as an interlocuter and question or criticize or restate. That pundits often exercise poor taste, or insist on choosing an imaginary strawman as interlocuter, but that's the fault of the strategist, not the strategy.

    I think, for the professionals, the more serious problem is the one of having many masters. That a professional writer of opinion, to make money, must satisfy, in addition to the judgement of self, that of advertisers, publishers, editors, as well as readers, may impose an impossible to satisfy set of constraints.

    I've watch the delightful Matthew Yglesias descend toward mediocrity in the drive to shape his brand, to make himself marketable. It is painful to watch, as he attempts to find liberal viewpoint sufficiently circumscribed as to be likely to find an imprimatur in a corporate plutocracy.

    And, finally, one might consider that a broad reading audience actually appreciates a certain fatuousness. Years ago, a philosophy professor point out to me that John Rawls of Theory of Justice fame was wildly successful, because he wasn't very good at the philosophy; a reasonably intelligent college sophomore could feel competent to engage with his ideas, precisely because a reasonably intelligent college sophomore was competent to deal with Rawls' arguments — that was their merit and virtue.

  4. To blow our own trumpet, Mark´s solution here at the RBC strikes me as very sound: invite half-a-dozen people with a roughly converging mindset, and a proven ability to write short pieces, to join him. So there´s almost always a new post by somebody every day, though I assure readers there´s no rota.

    It´s also a melancholy fact that (in my own case at least) reader response has absolutely no correlation with the amount of work I put into a post. So there´s no point in setting a very high subjective bar.

  5. Come on now, James. Reader response is measured in eyeballs, not by comments. When I read your posts, I often nod my head and say (to myself), "Gee, that's interesting; I hadn't seen it that way." I suppose I could blather on a bit and add a few unnecessary words, but I'd rather not make comments that add nothing — which I hope is not the case now.

  6. From Tom Lehrer,

    "I feel that if a person can't communicate the very least he can do is to shut up. "

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