Back in the pre-Internet days of yore, political punditry was the best job in journalism and one of the best anywhere. You could spout off on anything you wanted, and almost nobody would call you on it, much less find a place to publish and prove you wrong. And once you had established yourself as “credible,” it required little work, save coming up with a few semi-memorable phrases. (George Will’s chef-d’oeuvre was opining that the Reagan Administration “loved commerce more than it loathed Communism.”) With the advent of television talk shows, riches arrived in the form of corporate speaking gigs that paid tens of thousands of dollars an hour just to say the same damn thing you said on television. When Fred Barnes famously pronounced on The McLaughlin Group, “I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority,” he was right, at least to the degree that he was really saying, “I can speak to almost anything without anyone pointing out how full of shit I usually am.”
The advent of the Internet–particularly the blogosphere–has changed all that. Now, not only are the things pundits say and write preserved for posterity; there are legions of folks who track pundit pronouncements, fact-check their statements and compare them with previous utterances on the same and similar topics. They also demand a degree of transparency about methods of inquiry and the reasoning behind conclusions drawn. While proving pundits wrong–over and over and over–has not yet cost anyone a job, it has contributed to a precipitous decline in pundit prestige. The reaction to this decline varies from pundit to pundit, to be sure, but more often than not, it bespeaks a kind of panic.
America’s most powerful and influential television journalist, NBC’s Tim Russert, has taken a real blogosphere beating of late for his Libby trial admission that while, yes, he does consider himself to be a journalist, he does not think it proper to ask any news-related questions of top Bush Administration officials when they happen to phone him because, well, it’s bad manners. (Libby was foolishly calling Russert to instruct him to shut up Chris Matthews.) His response? “Bloggers,” said Russert in a recent speech, “all force candidates to accept a position, to play [an adversarial] role.” This, unfortunately, in Russert’s view, “puts pressure on those of us in the mainstream media [if we’re not] sufficiently adversarial.” Bad bloggers, bad.
Similarly, Tom Friedman’s pleasant, well-remunerated life as America’s most important foreign affairs columnist since Walter Lippmann would presumably be even pleasanter were he not consistently reminded of his proclivity to pronounce “the next six months in Iraq” to be the do-or-die period for the Bush Administration. (He did so four times during a single twelve-month period, as many in the blogosphere frequently note.) You can find the term “Friedman Unit”–also known as “one Friedman” or “one F.U.”–in Wikipedia, credited to Atrios, as referring to “six months in the future.” More broadly, “many political observers measure any date-specific statement by a public figure regarding the future of Iraq or the Iraq War in Friedman Units, thus suggesting that the speaker’s predictions of a near-term resolution of the Iraq War amount to that speaker’s de facto defense of the status quo.”