Pundits and pejoratives…

It seems that “pundit” has become a pejorative term for me, re: my post yesterday regarding Chris Matthews and the public record of his commentary. The word denotes a learned person or one learned in a particular field, a source of opinion, or a critic.

A source of opinion or a critic may be odious, but the connotation of the primary definition is certainly positive. How should we apply this term?

I think my contention yesterday that “Pundits = Entertainers” comes from my opinion that the structure of our media environment demands that TV pundits be entertaining first and learned second. And, predictably, I would say that a William Safire (in print) is doing something far different from a Chris Matthews (on TV).

I can confidently assert that entertainment is a primary value of television by pointing to the structural biases of that medium. But should it be a primary value, or a primary weapon, in the rough-and-tumble of civic discourse? This is the question the proposed liberal talk-radio network brings up for me.

Media critic Richard Blow seems completely comfortable with the idea of entertainment, specifically humor and satire, as primary tools of civic discourse. Of talk radio he says:

It’s hard to make it in talk radio without a decent sense of humor, and yet that doesn’t seem to stop well-meaning, earnest liberals from thinking that they were born to sit behind a mike. Could there be anything more excruciating than listening to Mario Cuomo pontificate for four hours every day? Perhaps the idea of sitting through a dinner with Daniel Schorr — yet that’s exactly what National Public Radio has been offering its contributors lately. That ought to rake in the donations.

And, perhaps, this is the awful truth–the thing that I know yet cannot fully accept: Electronic media just cannot deliver the kind of propositional content necessary to sustain important civic discourse. Only print can do that. So my earlier disgust at the idea of Al Franken yucking it up for Democrats is misplaced. And my condemnation that this radio idea cannot fly without serious commentary is, perhaps, sadly in error.

So, let me revise my equation of punditry and entertainment. Perhaps we should reserve the use of that word for learned men and women who work in print (the internet counts as print for me). I should not chastise Chris Matthews for a lack of intellectual consistency. He is an entertainer. He is not a pundit. Why should we expect him to challenge the very structure of the medium that pays his salary for a job he does very well?

The rub: Our culture takes television seriously.