The propaganda machine-3: The third tier pundits’ role and purpose

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In my previous post in this series, I described the kinds of arguments put out by some of the better-known third tier pundits. You can probably discern a characteristic common to all of them. They start by identifying an enemy (people or ideas) and then throw everything at it, using any spurious argument they can think up, hoping that something will stick. Their purpose seems to be to fill the airways and print media with noise and confusion. The idea is not to make a cogent case but to create a fog through which the public is encouraged to see the designated enemy as vaguely disreputable even if no one can say exactly why. One enemy they have agreed upon is ‘liberal’, a word with an honorable ancestry but now so muddied that they can use it in almost any way they like. So they assert that liberals are weak, fascistic, atheistic, immoral, anti-American, terrorist-loving appeasers. It does not even matter if their assertions contradict one another. The third tier pundits are glib and have a superficial cleverness that seems to be convincing to some people but they lack good rhetorical forensic skills, instead using the equivalents of sledgehammers.

By swarming through the media in large numbers like locusts, the third tier pundits convey the misleading impression that they represent a sizeable segment of opinion, even the mainstream, and their style of argumentation (narrowly focused, using rudeness, sarcasm, and ridicule as substitutes for arguments) is such that it makes for ‘good’ TV for those weaned on sports and reality shows. For some reason, people seem to enjoy political talk shows in which people talk fast and interrupt and yell at each other. Such programs are not suitable for reasoned discussion. In that noise, the lack of actual evidence and logical arguments and, more importantly, any truly alternative opinions are not immediately apparent. The Iraq war, for example, was sold to the American people by hucksters like these all yelling out fake arguments about the dangers posed by Iraq and not being challenged to produce the evidence or to defend their weak logic.

The third tier pundits can confidently behave like this knowing that they will rarely encounter a knowledgeable interviewer or program host who will hold them accountable or ask them to back up their statements with anything resembling facts or a line of coherent reasoning. As a result, this kind of vacuous hit-and-run punditry has become commonplace in the US. People can say absurd things on TV or on the radio, not be challenged by their interviewers, and then go on to make some new charge the next day. After doing this for years, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one is untouchable.

But sometimes they trip up. Ann Coulter encountered a Canadian interviewer Bob McKeown who actually challenged her on the facts and did not back down in the face of her repeated assertions of something that was false. You have to watch the video of the exchange to see the deer-in-the-headlights look she gets when she is challenged, and her desperate attempts to bluster her way out of an embarrassing situation. She was clearly not expecting this. But interviewers rarely hold their interviewees accountable in this way. (I wrote about this particular Coulter incident earlier.)

So why do third-tier pundits exist at all if their contribution to the public discourse is not just zero but actually negative? How is it that such obviously unserious people get so much space and airtime in the major media outlets? How come they seem to sell so many books so that this tripe even gets on best-seller lists?

It would be a mistake to think of these people as coming into being spontaneously or because of some talent they possess or even by sheer accident. The third tier pundits are a front for more important developments occurring elsewhere. If you use a circus metaphor, the third tier pundits are like the clowns who are brought out to distract and amuse the audience while the set is being changed. They are primarily entertainers whose purpose is to fill up the air time on radio and TV to the exclusion of more knowledgeable voices. By expressing extreme views in an inflammatory way, they put into circulation ideas that their more ‘respectable’ ideological allies cannot, allowing the more dangerous warmongering ideologues (William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Ledeen, etc.) to sound reasonable. They draw the fire of their ideological opponents, making them spend all their time and energy refuting their bizarre charges.

There are a host of well-funded foundations and think tanks and media outlets which are willing to hire these third tier pundits and let them loose as front line troops in the media war to persuade the public that policies that in reality will harm them are good for them. The antennae of the third tier pundit brigade are carefully tuned to pick up the cues about what their patrons want. Want the public to support an attack on a country like Iraq that never threatened the US? Want to provide tax cuts for rich people? Want to prevent the introduction of a single-payer health care system? Want to eliminate the estate tax so that inherited wealth can accumulate even more rapidly? Want to privatize social security and cut back on Medicare? Want to undermine public education? Want to take away even the little support that poor people get from the government? If the US oligarchy wants any or all of these things to be advocated, whom are they going to call? The third tier pundits of course. In a flash, they will come storming out of their luxury penthouse barracks, laptops blazing, occupying all the vantage points in the media so that more thoughtful voices are squeezed out, leaving little room for reasoned discussion.

By this technique, almost any crackpot idea becomes fodder for ‘serious’ discussion. A Tom Tomorrow cartoon, as usual, makes the point succinctly.

As a result of such repeated media exposure, the third tier pundits become, like Paris Hilton, famous just for being famous, although they have little of substance to contribute.

What is significant about them is not their contribution to the political discourse, but that they are visible markers of the underlying media structure. In the next post in this series, I will discuss five significant developments in media ownership and control that have resulted in the current media climate that enables this phenomenon to occur.

POST SCRIPT: “We own the world”

Noam Chomsky analyzes the current state of discussions in the mainstream media about US foreign policy and says that the analyses only make sense if you start out with the assumption that the US owns the world.

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