Saturday, July 21, 2007

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What does YouTube mean for punditry?

Ezra Klein has a provocative answer:

Increasingly, though, the incentives [for television appearances] are changing. Assume that the incentive for going on television is to raise your profile (which is about 75 percent correct). If I went on television five years ago, a large part of my incentive would be to make the host like me. After all, these appearances pass in an instant, and most of you would never see the program. So if I want to reach the maximum number of people with my arguments and do the most to increase my visibility, I want to keep coming back.

Now, however, with YouTube and GoogleVideo and online archiving, a single, contentious appearance can be seen on the internet a million times. Everyone, after all, has seen Stewart berate Tucker Carlson on Crossfire, but very few of us had actually tuned in that day. Similarly, my segment on the Kudlow show, replayed on the internet a few thousand times, did much more for my reputation among the audience relevant to my success than have my more friendly, but bland, appearances on other shows.

Making sense often requires you to be disruptive, and not long ago, being disruptive was probably a bad idea. Now it's a good one. And since the channels are wising up and putting their videos online with advertising before them, they also want widespread online dissemination of appearances, and so their incentives are increasingly aligned with mine. Does this mean more folks will be making sense? Not necessarily. But it means their might be more room for sense-making.

Alas, I think Ezra has his logic backwards. What attracts viewers' attention when watching pundits is not whether or not they're making sense, but whether or not they're being disruptive. This, of course, was why Crossfire was on the air for so long. This is why Robert Novak's most memorable TV moment will be when he walked off the the set of Inside Politics. This is why's biggest viral moment involved a lot of disruption but not a whole lot of sense.

To put it in terms of inequalities, I would agree that (disruptive + making sense) > (disruptive + nonsense) for most TV viewers, but that (disruptive + nonsense) > (polite + making sense) for most TV viewers as well.

One could argue that this means that the best pundits will be both disruptive and make sense, crowding out everyone else. Color me skeptical, however, for two reasons. First, it's much easier to be disruptive than it is to make sense, and so for an aspiring pundit, the risk-averse attention-getting strategy is making as big a stink as possible. Making sense is optional.

Second, sometimes making sense is not disruptive -- it's boring. Most of the time, life is not simple, does not fit neatly into ideological categories, and requires "on the one hand, on the other hand" calculations. This kind of analysis can be really, really boring to people -- especially if they crave informational shortcuts in the form of brightly colored answers.

Of course,to defend this position, I hereby challenge Ezra Klein to a mano-a-mano, no-holds-barred bloggingheads smackdown to debate the issue -- a prospect that scares other pundits.

posted by Dan on 07.21.07 at 11:04 PM



I am afraid that I largely agree with your analysis. Twenty-four hour cable news, the web, and now the rise of YouTube, in addition to the political polarization of the past twenty years, have had a coarsening effect on public discourse in the United States.

Your preference ordering for media communication strategies (disruptive + making sense > disruptive + nonsense > polite + making sense) seems perfectly sensible in such a fragmented market. The spokespeople for George W. Bush administration and their sometime allies (in Congress, the American Enterprise Institute, the Weekly Standard, etc.) were able to manipulate the debate before the 2003 Iraq War and for a considerable time since then by "cherry picking" facts to fit preferred strategies and by telling big lies. They also made very effective use of ad hominem arguments when confronted with dissenting voices.

For better or worse, international relations scholars who were (and are) critical of the Bush Doctrine and the Iraq War did not respond in kind. Although IR scholars can be brutal in their criticisms of one another's work, I would say that most of us are not trained to go into partisan attack mode when interviewed by Fox News, or CNN, or the broadcast networks. It is very difficult to hold the audience's attention and get one's point across when the other guest (or worse yet, the interviewer) is a raving neoconservative.

posted by: Jeff Taliaferro on 07.21.07 at 11:04 PM [permalink]

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