The Pandits of the Serengeti

Noah Fram

So this is week three of Arcs, and there are a few things I want to clarify.  In no particular order: I am currently a senior at Vanderbilt University, I have no idea how to build a boat and will likely drown in the event of a mythical flood, and I am a political pundit.  This may not seem like an auspicious beginning; not being an engineer is a mark of pride, of course, but punditry is a magnet for ridicule if ever there was one.  However, I intend to demonstrate that the profession itself is not reprehensible so much as its practitioners generally have the ethics of your average tax attorney or banker.

To begin, a little etymology.  The term “pundit” is derived from the Hindi word pandit, pronounced \’pən-dət\, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a wise or learned man in India – often used as an honorary title.”  Clearly, the word has been corrupted.  However, its earliest intentions were quite laudable: early pundits existed before television, and so published their social critiques on paper.  Many of these pundits are known by different titles, including “essayist,” “playwright,” or “novelist,” and could be said to include Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas More, and Charles Dickens, to indulge my latent and hitherto nonexistent anglophilia.  These so-called “archaic pundits” were not, however, constantly sought out for their opinions, and so quickly gave way to a more efficient breed: the journalistic pundits.

Perhaps the earliest recorded journalistic pundit was Will Rogers, the namesake of the Tony Award-winning musical The Will Rogers Follies and an accomplished satirist in his own right.  From him are descended the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Dave Letterman, so while he may be blamed for some of the infuriating chatter which inundates the airwaves every evening, he is more responsible for the enjoyable and informative comedy shows.  And yes, I do consider The Daily Show to be every bit as reputable as any major news network, and more so than some.

The breed of pundit we all despise is really a fairly recent innovation.  It was not all that long ago when men like Walter Cronkite, men with chiseled features who were every bit at home in a Hanoi slum as in a newsroom, men with names that conjured images of newsprint carved into granite, dominated the industry.  What changed, you may ask?  Where have all the Walters gone?  To make a long story short: Rupert Murdoch ate them.

In 1996, FOX News hired a new graduate of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to anchor a new prime-time television show.  Today, Bill O’Reilly is a household name, and his style of aggressively opinionated analysis is the norm (as typified by shows like Countdown with Keith Olbermann, which started in 2003; Glenn Beck, 2006; and The Ed Show, 2009).  Interestingly, The O’Reilly Factor is among the highest-rated news shows in all of cable television, which speaks to an interesting dilemma: news is delivered by charismatic individuals who garner higher Nielsen ratings than the competition.  They are clearly intelligent, and many of them have backgrounds as journalists, but they are paid to talk about the news on cable, not go research it themselves.  The profession has shifted.  Television is dominated by “anchors” and “analysts,” not journalists and reporters.  So where did they all go?  Please give me a moment, I need to find my Pundit Hat…

I believe that somewhere in the basement of FOX headquarters, there is a very small, padded room where they keep the journalists.  Bill O’Reilly sends an intern down twice a day with a cart full of sandwich materials and Mountain Dew, and their only furnishings are cots and desks with computers.  They research, write their well-reasoned and balanced reports, and send them upstairs, where the television crew has a good laugh over them and then uses them to kindle the fires that power their broadcast antennae.  MSNBC and CNN have a similar arrangement, except involving a secure van and a tower straight out of Rapunzel, respectively.  Removing Hat now…

And so I say I am a pundit, not out of any deep affinity for my partners in punditry, but rather out of self-preservation.  It is impossible to publish literature on politics and be treated with anything resembling kindness by your peers without resorting to pretending to be wise and learned while not actually being wise and learned.  The previous sentence is an excellent example of this tactic.  In today’s day and age, there are pundits but no pandits.  And also, vote for the angry man in the suit: he personally loves you, your family, and your parakeet named Larry.  But not like that.

Here’s your weekly video, this one courtesy the late Mr. Tim Russert, one of my favorite commentators of the last decade.  And since I’ve spent today talking about those of us who spend our time talking about politicians, I thought I might spend next week actually doing my job.  The title will be:

“The Nude Hiking Club.”

See you in a week!