SPAM for accuracy, network accountability

Sifting through the wreckage of the financial crisis has sparked newfound interest in holding various constituencies — including the journalistic punditocracy — accountable for what they do. Yet how do you impose guidelines on people whose hot air instantly dissipates into thin air?

The government has coined catchy acronyms, TARP and TALF, for toxic banking assets. So I humbly propose the Self-policing Pundit Accountability Measure, or SPAM, to address TV’s toxic pontification. In a nutshell, SPAM would call upon networks that employ and feature talking heads to take their track records into consideration or, at a minimum, force them to preface remarks by acknowledging when they have glaringly erred on that particular topic in the past.

A bit of history is necessary. Years ago, cable television realized the most inexpensive way to produce news is to have two people yell at each other in a studio. The news networks ostensibly borrowed this formula from talkradio, but the real inspiration was ESPN, which found that it’s possible to milk a game for untold hours by endlessly handicapping who’s going to win in advance, then analyzing the victory afterward.

This approach permeated all forms of news, on stories ranging from elections to the economy to (perhaps most infamously) the build-up to war in Iraq, which birthed an entire class of “military analysts” who, as the New York Times exhaustively detailed, were largely in bed with the government.

More recently, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” aired a devastating takedown of CNBC and its “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer, showing that, in hindsight, the business channel was so busy cheerleading the stock market that it left a damning video record of its talent propping up companies that subsequently collapsed like a flimsy house of bank statements.

Given all that’s gone wrong, there’s renewed discussion about pundits and columnists owning up to misfires, although no one has really designed how to monitor them. Indeed, many have urged consumers to do the job, as if anybody has the time or patience to keep track of such things.

“The marketplace of ideas for now doesn’t clear out bad pundits and bad ideas partly because there’s no accountability,” Nicholas Kristof sensibly wrote in the New York Times. “We trumpet our successes and ignore failures — or else attempt to explain that the failure doesn’t count because the situation changed or that we were basically right but the timing was off.”

Times business contributor Ben Stein discussed the pressure under which analysts are placed to gaze into crystal balls.

“I don’t blame Mr. Cramer for trying to act as if he knows the future,” Stein said. “That’s his gig. But the most that economic seers can do is apply broad, generally acceptable principles to current situations and try to go from there. When I stray far from that, I hope that thoughtful readers will call me to account.”

Practically speaking, networks are too addicted to predictions at this stage to significantly curb the practice. Putting the onus on “thoughtful readers,” however, represents little more than a convenient cop out.

Assuming anyone is remotely serious about cleaning up TV’s noxious cloud of erroneous bloviation, the operation would have to start with the major networks and cable channels. Basically, if you’ve been giving a widespread forum to “experts” who have been demonstrably and repeatedly wrong, you owe it to consumers — inundated as they are with information from a multitude of sources — to either weed out bad apples or, barring that, to periodically own up to their (and by extension, your) mistakes, without waiting around to be embarrassed by Jon Stewart’s crack research staff.

In a roundabout way, this brought to mind an intemperate statement by Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, regarding the economic meltdown. “This crisis was caused by the irrational behavior of white people with blue eyes,” he said, “who before the crisis appeared to know everything and now demonstrate that they know nothing.”

Expunge the race-baiting rhetoric and it actually sounds like he watches a lot of cable news. So to begin curing TV’s epidemic of know-nothingness, I’d say we need a generous helping of SPAM.

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