OPINION: Why do news organizations employ political pundits?

Credit: The Hollywood Reporter

Credit: The Hollywood Reporter

By definition, news organizations are supposed to present factual and unbiased information, so isn’t employing individuals whose sole job is to color and politicize information anathema to the core goal of journalism?

Public distrust of the news is at an all-time high and we’re in an age where our nation’s political leaders would like nothing more than to clamp down on freedom of the press. Therefore, it’s more important than ever for news organizations to practice hard-hitting, unbiased political reporting and regain public trust, and one of the best ways of doing so would be to stop giving pundits a legitimate platform to manipulate public opinion.

The influence pundits and columnists hold in comparison to straight news reporters is wildly unbalanced and simply cannot be overstated. To start with the obvious: Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity are two of the most well-known and powerful individuals in media and are basically celebrities, but unlike popular athletes or actresses, O’Reilly and Hannity’s more-or-less sole job is to manipulate information and push a political agenda. They work(ed) at a business that styles itself as a news organization and command followings that real reporters could only dream of.

Hannity boasts 3.2 million Facebook followers, around 600,000 more than the Los Angeles Times, one of the world’s largest newspapers (full disclosure: I used to intern there). He has a staggering 1.2 million more followers than MSNBC. Hannity is only outmatched in the followers department by a handful of the biggest newspapers and television networks, and in a social media-driven journalism environment, that says much about his influence.

Social media numbers are a fairly good way of judging a news item’s reach, and it doesn’t take much digging to see that columns, especially political ones, tend to perform much better than straight news articles when shared on social media. Just check the social media pages of any major news organization.

There are two major issues with this. First, the dominating reach of columns over news pieces promotes the idea that these major news organizations have political bias. These social media posts are usually an excerpt of the opinion piece or an otherwise brief summary, followed by a note that the link is to an opinion article. Pretty much all opinion articles in both print newspapers and online are categorized under a clear opinion section. But that distinction doesn’t matter, or at the very least doesn’t do enough.

“Donald Trump, Our First Millennial President.”

Besides the fact that that headline is…not a very good hot take, the actual column is just a weak recap of some of Trump’s blunders that offers no legitimate insights or particularly thoughtful information. What purpose do these columns serve other than to drive page views? These kinds of dull, pointless columns attacking Trump just reinforce the viewpoints of liberal readers in a news bubble, even though simply continuing to report on the many ongoing horrors his government regularly propagates would accomplish an actual journalistic purpose without the ridiculous bias. On the other hand, such articles further embolden far-right readers, who use these columns as weapons to discredit these news sources.

It’s not like you have to go out of your way to find thinkpieces like this. The above column was written earlier this week and these kinds of articles are constantly being published by every major news source. Seriously, how many columns have you seen in the last year attacking Trump or the GOP? They’re crammed into the news cycle to the point that it’s nearly impossible to differentiate them, yet not of them offer any legitimate journalistic value.

Moreover, for many, simply seeing the opinionated teaser or headline next to the Washington Post’s name is enough to assume editorial bias. It doesn’t matter that the social media post notes that the article is an opinion piece. It doesn’t matter that the link says “Column” and it doesn’t matter that the website states that all opinions are those of the writer and are not endorsed by the publication.

I’m a full-time journalist who constantly consumes media and has a keen eye for differentiating between hard news and opinion, but sometimes even I mistake a column or “political analysis” for a news piece. Can we really blame the average reader for getting mixed up more often than someone such as myself?

When it comes to pieces published by an editorial board, it also doesn’t matter that a news organization’s editorial board is separate from said organization’s reporting staff. Most readers are unlikely to be aware of the distinction between an “editorial board” and actual editors, and assuming that they should be aware of such intricacies is worryingly arrogant.

Then, on the other end of the media spectrum, there are organizations such as Fox News. Picking on Fox News is easy, but it’s important to realize how successful the organization is at masquerading pundits as legitimate news sources to manipulate the flow of information.

As mentioned above, it’s unrealistic to assume that readers are sufficiently aware of, or at least care about, the separation between news articles and columns. The same can be said for pundits such as Hannity. Hannity has repeatedly stated that he is not a journalist. That’s irrelevant, because his television show, website, social media pages and overall brand generally convey the persona of a newsman, and it’s an image that his legions of followers are happy to buy into. This also applies to Tucker Carlson, any of “The Five’s” co-hosts or any of the network’s other GOP mouthpieces.

Of course, this all works fantastically well for Fox News with regards to both financial success and political and general news influence and condemning the organization for editorial bias is an exercise in laughable futility. This is, after all, the network that successfully markets itself as “America’s #1 cable news network,” yet constantly derides the mainstream media. But if actual news organizations would stop running pundits and editorials that similarly push naked political ideology, maybe — just maybe — there’d be a greater awareness that Fox News is a blatant political advocacy organization as opposed to a legitimate news source.

The second major issue of pundits is that the simple fact that they’re employed or otherwise paid by news organizations means that less resources and attention are being directed to issues that actually matter. As mentioned, columns attacking some part of the political spectrum are endlessly published en masse by every major news organization.

What if all of the resources used to pay such ideologues was redirected to hiring more reporters and editors? What if the New York Post dropped their pundit that apparently believes sexual harassment is excusable if the predator is now a 90-year-old man in a wheelchair and replaced his position with a reporter who could perhaps cover our society’s pervasive sexual violence issues? (John Podhoretz has since deleted that Tweet). Pundits make up a seemingly not-insignificant minority of many news organizations, and in an era where most journalism organizations are in the financial pits, it is inexcusable that layoffs would ever affect an editorial department that still has political columnists on payroll.

Public awareness is another crucial resource that pundits are sucking away. One of last week’s biggest political stories centered on Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announcement that he would retire at the end of his current term due to his opposition to Trump and the contemporary Republican Party. Flake’s speech was breathlessly covered by pundits across the media spectrum in excruciating detail.

Less advertised was news that the Senate voted — Flake voted party-line, by the way — to roll back regulations that allowed consumers to sue their banks. That news broke in the evening and was out of the news cycle by next morning, while various thinkpieces about Flake still surfaced to the forefront of many newsfeeds. Most journalism organizations covered the Senate vote, but the reporting was overshadowed by a deluge of pundit columns about comparably unimportant issues.

The Senate vote concerning banks could have grave consequences for civil liberties, but it’s far from the first sinister thing the current administration has pushed, and it won’t be the last. Journalism organizations absolutely must dedicate themselves to fully covering these injustices to the fullest extent possible, and they must take all possible measures to make sure their reporting is front and center in the public eye. Pundits are an active detriment to both of these goals. Get rid of them.

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