How To Make A Pundit

Why would anyone want to make a pundit? *rim shot*

With that out of the way, I have thought about this a great deal. So, apparently, have others. Today Jamelle Bouie fired off a series of tweets about race, gender, stratification and media expansion.

My friend (and tireless, thankless champion) Sarah Jaffe has prodded me to fully articulate my inchoate thoughts on intersectionality and the political economy of making a pundit. But I have also intended to do laundry for three weeks now. I do the best I can.

I have assembled half the data for an organizational analysis of pundit machinery. It’s right there with about three dozen other projects I will die trying to finish.

Sans formal analysis, I have thought a great deal about pundit-making.

First, pundits matter as much as any other cultural product. There is certainly an argument that talking heads should be banished with all other forms of banal media distractions. But, the reality is that they have not been banished…for reasons. As it turns out, exploring the whatzits of “for reasons” is kind of the great social science project.

Whether we need them, want them, make them, buy them, follow or ignore them — pundits are a type of public performance of our intellectual and civic psyche.

Second, pundits don’t look like me. None of them. Not even the two or three brown ones you’re about to cite in the comment section. From a material intersectional perspective (I am specific for a reason, i.e. structure), my class-race-gender-status-power position is not reflected in the pundit class. There may be women but how many are black? There may be black women but how many are dark? There may be dark black women but how many are fat? There may be fat women but how many are from public colleges? These combinations could go on and on and I suspect you’d not be able to name too many professional performance thinkers that share my social location. As a critical sociologist those kinds of absent archives are what I listen and read for.

If we consider that pundits might matter and that who is absent from the pundit class is a point of departure to study all manner of inequalities, then we get to my question: how do you make a pundit?

Because how you make something says a lot about access and power.

Jamelle made the point about new media ventures like Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish and Ezra Klein’s Vox-Vox service (publication? outlet? hell if I know).  These projects are emerging from the shifting corporate logics of old media where structural inequalities are fairly well-documented. Old media doesn’t much do women, black people, brown people, or combinations thereof. For many of us, the hope of emerging media logics where we are represented burns eternal.

And to Jamelle’s point, there has been some minimal movement in that arena. Yet, even minimal expansion of non-traditional media personalities can be enough to stratify old media as passe and new, emerging media as the serious, real wonk arena. And the new arena is overwhelmingly white and male. The new frontier pundits even seem to share the same eyeglasses and haircuts. This kind of stratifying-by-expanding is sort of the classic sociological paradox. The “real” legitimate tool replicates the old tool that is delegitimized by too many delegitimate people mucking up the waters.

So far the new new media looks a lot like the old new media before a handful of non-white guys got on.

My project has focused on the machinery (or political economy if you want to be fancy) that makes such a remarkably consistent pundit product. There is covariance with elite colleges (no surprise there). But there are also less obvious points of convergence for pundit making, like literary agents and celebrity weak ties. Yet, the overriding question remains why the new wonks look, sound, and reflect the same demographics of old pre-MHP, Dyson, Ifill wonks?

Vox-vox-ish services are said to be the future of news and media like sci-fi is always said to be our imagined future. And like sci-fi, in the projected media future it seems some natural disaster kills off all the brown people before the future arrives.

Whether you prefer to take them or leave them, wonks are the visual landscape of formal knowledge and expertise. This actually may be more true as Americans increasingly report declining faith in the other bastion of formal knowledge and expertise. A mostly white, male pundit class normalizes logic, reason, and expertise as a white guy thing. Social media is supposed to democratize the access points into the pundit class. So far, social media platforms seem to submerge the machinery more than it reveals ways to disrupt it.

For all the promised next level innovation in data, methods, analysis, access, and distribution there is little attention paid to innovating the interconnected processes that produce a homogeneous pundit class.

7 thoughts on “How To Make A Pundit

  1. It seems plausible to me that at least PART of the stratification of the pundit class is due to mere selection bias. Pundits likely come from a restricted set of educational backgrounds, and are unlikely to be able to rise through the ranks without the “right” degrees and the “right” networks (among other things, I’m sure). These elements are already race-stratified, and then there’s the additional race-stratified nature of who “gets to” be on TV in the first place, whose intellectual opinions “get to” be taken seriously, and so forth.

    The other thing that this makes me mindful of is the fact that fat black women from public college backgrounds (or whichever set of demographic characteristics one wishes to see reflected) have been DOING punditry forever – we just don’t call it that. It’s analogous to the reason why philosophy departments stay white and male: philosophical work done by women isn’t called “philosophy”; it’s called “women’s studies” or “feminism” or any other number of euphemisms.

    But of course the compensation and cultural heft denied these labels (in favour of “pundit”, “philosopher”, “politician”, what-have-you) definitely means that we should be actively working to open those doors. All I am commenting on is the linguistic substitution that is directed at the work of women who do “men’s work”.

  2. “Because how you make something says a lot about access and power.”
    Very… VERY well said.

    It definitely speaks to the political philosophy question of representation through mere presence… while it is not completely convincing that presence does an adequate job of representation, otherwise “even the two or three brown ones” might address the issue… but clearly that is not enough either, since frequently those “two or three” are chosen to perpetuate an agenda that is basically already represented in the white male perspective.

    Simply having more diversity does not address the shortcoming, otherwise Sarah Palin would have to be viewed as a great step forward for women… while I might be going out on a limb here, Sarah Palin as a pioneer for women is a sentiment that a great many would find problematic.

    Great post… look forward to reading more.

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