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The Problem with Punditry
It's time for accountability in policy commentary and analysis
How many times have you read an analysis piece or an op-ed that went to great lengths explaining a foreign policy problem and what everyone one was doing wrong, and the piece ended with a platitude like:
“That’s why the United States needs to do more.”
“History has shown this approach will not work, and it’s time to change course.”
“Failing to act will lead to more suffering.”
And of course, there is the Tom Friedman classic:
“The next six months in [insert country here] will be the most critical period.”
Great, that’s helpful.
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I’m not being hyperbolic here. We’ve all read plenty of essays (or seen pundits on TV) that analyze, explain, critique, call attention, and then conclude with recommendations that are so general as to be utterly useless, or no recommendations at all.
As I heard so often when I worked in government, “don’t tell me about problems, give me solutions.”
And in government or business, you must provide actionable recommendations or solutions that are (theoretically) achievable. Lives, money, businesses, and projects are at stake, so there is a need to come up with reasoned options and advice.
In punditry, not so much. In D.C., there are hundreds (thousands?) of unaccountable pundits, analysts, think tank experts, and others who make a living commenting on problems. Some are masters of breaking down a situation and providing analysis of why and how something played out the way it did. But few are truly expert in offering solutions, especially solutions that fit the realities and nuances of conditions on the ground and available resources.
Let’s face it, it’s not hard to find fault and criticize. Providing commentary is not difficult. What is hard is articulating alternatives and solutions and providing analysis to support alternatives.
To be fair, some problems—for example Syria—are challenging to untangle and solve, and there are many excellent analysts and centers in D.C. and elsewhere that generate well-researched and argued policy papers replete with clear recommendations that are reasonable and actionable. But there are so many that also churn out product after product that do little more than advocate a certain ideology or propose simplistic or unrealistic recommendations.
On top of that, very often when people do articulate solutions, they are the same that others have advocated, which raises the question of why no one is implementing those solutions.
I ran headfirst into this phenomenon in summer 2006 when I was an intern/research associate at the Dubai School of Government. I was tasked with writing a policy paper on governance and political reform in the Middle East—just a simple, small topic…
As I started my research, I quickly found dozens of think tank and academic papers discussing governance in the Middle East. For years, experts had been writing reports saying pretty much the same things: the corruption and authoritarianism of Middle Eastern regimes was crushing societies, limiting job opportunities and expression for young people, and leading to frustration and in some cases radicalization.
The reports had similar conclusions and recommendations: eliminate corruption, open political space, invest in education and the private sector, get rid of patronage networks, and transition to democracy.
Report after report made variations of the same recommendations. The problems of the Arab world had been diagnosed and “solved” many times over, and people just needed to implement the solutions proposed by the wise and esteemed experts, some of whom barely set foot in the region.
Yet, the solutions were not being implemented. Thus, I found my angle for my paper. Rather than focus on retreading the same well-worn ground, I chose to focus on why the proposed reforms were not happening. Were they not the right solutions and reforms after all? What were the barriers to implementing the reforms?
By analyzing those questions, I believed I could move the conversation forward by providing more insights on how to eliminate barriers and make progress.
What I found in my research was not surprising. The theme of my paper was that the drivers of the need for reform were largely the same as the barriers to reform. Here’s an excerpt:
While each country in the Middle East faces specific internal issues, there are clear trends that confront all nations. Unemployment, demographic pressures, educational deficiencies, structural economic challenges, and centralized, often corrupt rule have all driven people to seek reform. The lack of substantive reform is not a function of lack of desire or will. The power of ruling regimes, the focus on democratization rather than governance, the misinterpretation of the growing strength of Islamists, the policies of external players like the United States, and the lack of sustained leadership for change all create substantial barriers to reform.
It is not hard to outline the challenges in the region and identify the needed reforms; the difficulty is in charting a course. By moving away from a discussion based purely on democratization and instead looking at governance, it is possible to outline small steps that governments and reformers can take now. Improving bureaucratic functions and the delivery of services, investing in education, taking steps to reign in corruption, learning from past successes and failures, establishing partnerships inside and outside the region, and opening economies are all reforms that can be initiated today.
Now, I’m not going to argue that I did a great job in the paper of charting a course forward. However, I do think I did a better job than most at the time of recognizing that sweeping reforms were unrealistic and detached from reality, and that taking a tactical, incremental approach could make a difference.
Even if I didn’t have all the answers, I was trying to change the conversation and approach by calling attention to the fact that the recommendations from those smarter than I were not being implemented and that the experts needed to turn their attention to the “how” part of the equation.
That experience shaped my ethic going forward. When I write or speak about foreign policy, I endeavor to provide a realistic, conditions-based path forward. If there isn’t a clear path, I try to explain why and examine the constraints so that I can at least eliminate paths that would only waste time, money, and lives.
Without reflecting on why the right course isn’t being pursued, the vested interests in maintaining the wrong course, and some articulation of what it would take to change course, analysis and punditry is just filling space. It’s hot air.
Of course, experts and analysts generally are not paid for outcomes, they are paid for outputs—papers, op-eds, or media appearances that elevate their organization’s brand.
On any given day in D.C., you can find some organization hosting an event discussing a paper or report of some kind. For example, I covered numerous panels, hearings, and working group discussions about cybersecurity in 2016 and 2017. I heard a lot of “what” and not a lot of “how.” To this day, people are making many of the same recommendations and while they still sound logical, they aren’t being implemented. Clearly something is missing in the analysis.
Today, reporters write stories about things like how “think tank X says that the United States needs to remain engaged in Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from further eroding women’s rights.”
Rarely is there a concrete, “how” and execution strategy. Yes, I think we all agree what has happened in Afghanistan since the return of the Taliban is devastating. I think we all feel that “more should be done.” But what?
I have not heard a compelling argument so far on how the United States can help Afghan women. As I wrote last week, the international community has few carrots or sticks right now that can move the Taliban. U.S. troops are not going back into Afghanistan to provide security for women to go to school or work for humanitarian organizations.
I’m not advocating for giving up trying to come up with ways to influence the Taliban to moderate, but I’m tired of people writing sky-is-falling essays calling on the world to help Afghan women while offering no suggestions, or completely implausible ones.
For that matter, I can’t stand how to this day there are pundits who say the solution to Afghanistan was for the United States to keep 2,500 troops there. They do not explain, nor do interviewers aske them, how that could have been done after President Trump agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops. Going back on that agreement would have meant returning to active combat with the Taliban and 2,500 troops would not have fared well. But one of the mantras of punditry is “don’t let facts get in the way of a good line.”
I have argued for years that there needs to be some sort of system of accountability for analysts and pundits. I started fixating on this in the run up to the war in Iraq when the foreign policy blob—ranging from current and former officials who have had to make life-and-death decisions to researchers and think tankers who have never visited the places they discuss or have any practical policy-making experience—was frothing at the mouth championing the invasion.
To be fair, that invasion was going to happen regardless of what anyone at Brookings or Johns Hopkins had to say, but they added credibility to a messaging campaign that sold the American public on a bogus war.
In the years after, you had a parade of unaccountable analysts and columnists going on cable news and Sunday talk shows with their advice on how to fix Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of them were wrong as time has shown—although I thought most of them were wrong at the time—and yet they continue to appear on news programs to offer their foreign policy expertise.
Again, there are no consequences for them. They are not making or implementing policy, so they are not on the hook if things fail. Yet, they influence public opinion and the people who do make policy decisions.
And the media do a lousy job of policing their pundits. The gatekeepers are not keeping the gate.
I’m not going to call out individuals here, other than the one I mentioned earlier in this essay who has been wrong more times than I can count and should be blacklisted from media appearances. Suffice to say, there are plenty of guilty parties, and most of us know who they are.
Now, following my own criticism and advice, let me discuss what to do.
As I just noted, the fault lies primarily with the media. Everyone wants ratings, and one of the ways to accomplish that is through star power. Journalists want big names more than they want the best analysis. TV producers want “gets,” and a get is a name and title, which is not synonymous with substance.
So, how do we get the media to stop going back to the same old well and to bring in fresh voices who are more concerned with providing actionable analysis and better context?
It requires activism and participation, just as politics does. It requires consumers of media to write, Tweet, and otherwise communicate with news organizations to say, “Why do you keep interviewing this retired general who was one of the people who helped screw things up in Afghanistan?”
Consumers need to push news organizations when they hear hosts ask softball or the wrong questions. Consumers need to vote with their wallets—unsubscribe from outlets that are lazy and default to the same pundits over and over.
The media will not change if they do not feel any heat.
Media critics and researchers also need to step up. I would love to see the Shorenstein Center at Harvard or the Columbia School of Journalism or some other media research and education institution launch a project on pundit accountability. Start tracking the media appearances of pundits and grade their performances on whether they offer any useful analysis and recommendations and whether they prove correct.
Today we rate restaurants, airlines, schools, doctors, just about anyone and anything we interact with. Why not rate pundits? It would not be difficult to create some reasonable criteria and metrics to score pundits on how well they are informing audiences and how often their analysis and commentary proves correct or useful.
That scorecard should also include ideological data as well. For those of us well versed in the think tank world, we know the leanings and agendas of the various organizations and what kinds of policies they champion. The media do not always communicate that and therefore consumers do not know that a particular pundit isn’t providing “neutral” analysis—not that there is such a thing, but the audience should know if a pundit talking about Iran works for a think tank that advocates forcible regime change or one that supports diplomatic engagement.
That data would help the audience consume news more critically and increase pressure on the media to make better choices and ask better questions when interviewing pundits.
So, that’s my ask. When you read an op-ed that complains and offers no solutions, write the paper and call it out. When you see a pundit on TV who is talking about Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya and is just trying to save face for past arguments that were flat-out wrong, Tweet about it and email the program.
I’m not saying we should be Grandpa Simpson all day long, but we all have to be advocates for better journalism and more informed discussion of public policy.
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