Howard Kurtz’s bizarre article on the coming out of NBA player Jason Collins, in which he incorrectly stated that Collins did not tell the press that he had at one point been engaged, led to his dismissal from the Daily Beast. He followed up with an apology on his own CNN show, all the while being dressed down by Politico's Dylan Byers and NPR's David Folkenflik, who asked him about a laundry list of his journalistic errors over the years. However, as much as we would like to pretend that Howard Kurtz’s inaccuracy in reporting is an anomaly, his mistakes are indicative of the free reign given pundits, especially when one notes the lack of repercussions both for Kurtz, and his other colleagues who have made egregious mistakes.
Pundits operate on a strange sort of plane: they are passionate about their political ideals, but, unlike policymakers, have no obligation to enforce or implement those ideals. They also have more career stability, bigger paychecks, and arguably more sway with the American people than the average politician, as they show up on television every night, while your representative can only get there on special occasions. The power and privilege that comes alongside being a political pundit also affords one great liberty to say and do what one pleases, with few repercussions. Unlike elected officials, no one will vote them in or out of their chairs in front of the camera. We’ve seen this play out not only with Kurtz, but with any pundit who has taken a position that turns out to be wildly misguided, and yet they continue to be widely cited, consulted, and ultimately face few if any consequences.
Pundits that urged the Iraq war like William Kristol continue to have their opinions respected — hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars after it has become clear the Iraq war was an atrocious policy decision. On a daily basis, pundits make errors: in reporting, in data analysis, even in advocacy for a particular position. But there is no ombudsman for television talking heads. Instead, their errors are forgiven or forgotten, leaving pundits who are not grilled by other journalists on their own show to be seen as without error. This is especially disturbing considering, as Salon points out, by the time one has a show of one’s own, one might, like Kurtz, have become “both busier and lazier,” easily susceptible to mistakes that no one will call out.
You cannot vote a pundit out of office. But maybe the dressing down of Kurtz shows us that in an age of media where anyone can be a journalist, or at least where anyone can hold journalists accountable, the pundit is no longer king. Accuracy is something everyone should strive for, television show and hefty paycheck or not, and errors without apology are no longer acceptable.