Wednesday, March 24, 2010

5 Pundits Who Changed My Life

Rick Newman

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I almost missed out on Rick Newman. I stopped reading U.S. News & World Report a while back, because I decided it was too slanted in favor of corporate America.

It's probably impossible to find an objective commentator now that network news has split along left/right political lines, but Mr. Newman appears on both Fox and CNN. I suspect that puts him somewhere close to the center, a personality who can be used by either side to introduce some balance into a segment.

Mr. Newman's Money blog at U.S News & World Report is the best organized blog on the web. The way he uses hyperlinks is a clinic in how to develop a topic in depth over time. Start at Why Shopping May Never Be The Same Again and follow the links. As a bonus, Mr. Newman has a sense of humor. In a world where network comedians pass for political commentators, a real pundit with a lighter side is nice to find.

Mr. Newman doesn't try to be deep. He lets the facts he selects make his points for him. But plain talk and understandable facts may be just what we need these days.

Paul Krugman

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Paul Krugman is a cautionary tale. Mr. Krugman's career as a pundit demonstrates how brilliance can come unglued. The Great Unraveling -- the title of Mr. Krugman's collection of New York Times essays -- is intended as homage to Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, a brilliant exploration of the roots of fascism. But the great unraveling might just as well describe Krugman's mind over the last decade as his loathing for the Bush administration sidetracked him. He became so distracted by the shadow play of politics during the Bush years that he lost sight of the real threat: the ever-growing power of international corporations.

Mr. Krugman's take on the Obama administration has been just as fuddled. Unable to see that Mr. Obama is just another player in a political system that pits one slate of corporate candidates against another, Mr. Krugman began by characterizing Mr. Obama as incompetent during the primary, decided he was capable but too cautious and ill-advised after he took office, then ended up deciding Mr. Obama is incompetent after all. In the meantime, Mr. Krugman seems to have forgotten what he noticed back in 2000 when he began to write for the Times: How thoroughly corrupted the U.S. corporate system has become. Unfortunately, American politics is now part of that system. Were he less politicized, Mr. Krugman might be the right pundit to point that out.

Walter Cronkite

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The 1972 Oliver Quayle poll that declared Walter Cronkite the most trusted public figure in America may have been bogus -- apparently, most of the choices other than Cronkite were politicians -- but there is no doubt that during the Sixties Mr. Cronkite was viewed as an objective voice. The power of that perceived objectivity was demonstrated when he turned against the Vietnam war. Instead of being viewed as an American victory, the failed Tet offensive in 1968 was viewed by Mr. Cronkite's vast audience as the beginning of the end in Vietnam.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past, Mr. Cronkite said. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

Mr. Conkrite's moral authority came in part from his objectivity -- he anchored the CBS news at a time when opinion was clearly separated from news reporting -- and in part from the legacy of Edward R. Murrow. In using the words "mired in stalemate," he was, at the same time, both reflecting and influencing America's definition of victory in war.

Edward R. Murrow

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When the New York Times condemned CBS News for caving to CBS corporate by gutting Lowell Bergman's 60 Minutes exposé of the tobacco industry, the Times editors could think of no charge more devastating than that CBS News had betrayed the legacy of Edward R. Murrow. Mr. Murrow believed in the power of words and facts to sway public opinion. He was always eloquent and factual, seldom histrionic. And his integrity was beyond reproach.

Anyone who actually saw a Murrow broadcast will understand what I mean when I say that Keith Olbermann's attempts to imitate Murrow's style are worse than a betrayal of the Murrow legacy. That legacy was never Olbermann's to betray. Olberman's hysterical rants are travesties. Compared to the reasoned discourse of Murrow and his peers, Olbermann's outbursts demonstrate all too clearly how far journalism has strayed from Murrow's path.

Walter Lippmann

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The founder of the New Republic. Walter Lippmann's The Good Society was published in 1937 while Karl Polanyi was busy writing The Great Transformation. (Polanyi's autopsy report on 19th Century capitalism wasn't published until 1944.)

Lippmann and Polanyi both recognized facism as a totalitarian solution to the conflict between society and individual freedom. Lippmann's conclusion, that fascism is simply the policy of modern nations when they go to war, is less interesting than Polanyi's idea that fascism has it's roots in our denial of the reality of society. But Lippmann was one of the first pundits to recognize the threat of giant corporations to freedom. We could use him today.

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