News Networks Need to Become More Expert at Finding ‘Experts’

Fox News wound up with egg on its face not long ago, having regularly featured an “expert” who might not have been all that he claimed to be. Specifically, Wayne Simmons allegedly inflated his 27 years of service in the CIA — his primary credential as a foreign-policy analyst — by 27 years.

Still, for anyone who has dealt with TV news, the real surprise isn’t that bogus authorities occasionally make it onto the air. It’s that such eruptions don’t happen more often, given the allure of becoming part of the Expert Industrial Complex, and the seemingly seat-of-the-pants methods employed to determine who gets booked as guests.

The mainstream media are once again under siege on partisan grounds, with Republicans crying foul over coverage they see as tilted toward the left. At the same time, the industry is in a state of flux, enhancing the prestige of relatively new players, like Vice, while testing established ones, like National Geographic.

Yet traditional news outlets face challenges that cross party lines when they dilute their credibility by allocating time to experts of dubious qualification. Such lapses are often a byproduct of the old adage that “haste makes waste,” coupled with TV’s particular bias toward telegenic faces, frequently with minimal regard to what’s coming out of their mouths.

In terms of the current election cycle, this lack of circumspection has unleashed a horde of vaguely identified “strategists” whose foundation and/or motivation for what they’re saying usually must be taken on faith. Moreover, those same talking heads are under increasing pressure to cover politics like sports, venturing predictions and guesses with scant fear of penalty for being proven demonstrably wrong on matters like, say, whether Vice President Joe Biden would run for president. (Credit the website Talking Points Memo with singling out those responsible for faulty forecasts, an act of pundit shaming that, if practiced more vigorously, might help curb some of the wilder prognosticating.)

Obviously, breaking news stories force networks to scramble to find informed guests. But TV producers also commit a litany of unforced errors, creating urgency and last-minute panic around events where none is necessary.

Take, as an example, Trevor Noah’s debut as host of “The Daily Show,” a date that had been known for months. Mere hours before the broadcast, two networks separately contacted Variety asking if a TV critic could watch the premiere from their offices in order to comment either on-air live or for the next day’s morning show.

Given that most critics — at least, employed ones — were likely going to be busy filing reviews that night, that’s less a prescription for finding a qualified expert than a desperate hunt for the next available warm body. And it’s a pattern that has repeatedly tripped up news divisions, booking “experts” with conflicts of interest or questionable backgrounds. Nor does it help when networks like CNN or HLN assemble six- or eight-person panels to weigh in on a topic — an “It takes a village” approach that visually transforms news analysis into a rerun of “Hollywood Squares.”

The incentives for aspiring TV stars to try gaming the system are obvious. Whatever its flaws, television remains almost unique in its ability to heighten someone’s marketability. Who wouldn’t want to go from being an ordinary working therapist or prosecutor to Dr. Phil or Nancy Grace? Even at less ostentatious levels, high-profile pundit gigs can help secure book deals or entice clients.

For all the criticism directed at traditional news operations, whether legitimate or self-serving, their claim to credibility still matters. And while enduring those slings and arrows goes with the territory, when it comes to experts, it wouldn’t require unreasonable precautions to avoid more of these self-inflicted wounds.

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