• Keith Mathison

Pontificating Populist Punditry


For those familiar with popular culture in the 1980s, the name Cliff Clavin might ring a bell. Cliff was a regular character in the hit television series Cheers, which ran from 1982 until 1993. Cliff was a postal worker and a know-it-all. It did not matter what the topic might be, Cliff felt compelled to weigh in and offer his “expert” take on it. Cliff also enjoyed sharing little known “facts” with his friends. Cliff, for example, shared the following gem: “It's a little known fact that cows were domesticated In Mesopotamia and were also used in China as guard animals for the Forbidden City.”


Who knew?


The character was amusing because almost everybody knew a Cliff Clavin. Everybody had that one friend or family member who was a know-it-all. I’m not sure the character would be as amusing today given the fact that social media has turned everyone into a Cliff Clavin. How has this happened? Part of the problem is due to the way in which news media evolved and eventually merged with internet platforms.


Early television news evolved in the 1940s and 1950s out of radio news programs, which themselves had developed during the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the most well-known and respected television newsmen started their careers as radio war correspondents during World War Two. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, for example, were journalists during the war who later moved into television. From the 1950s to the 1980s, most television news was aired in 30-minute time slots on the major networks, and the focus was on reporting. Thirty minute television news did not allow the kind of depth that newspapers could achieve, but it was a way to get what editors deemed the most important information to a large number of people.


In 1980, CNN, the first 24-hour cable news station was launched. This changed the game. During the 1980s and 1990s, many other 24-hour cable news stations were launched including CNBC, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC. Theoretically, a 24-hour television news program could allow more in-depth coverage of important events than a 30-minute program. Good investigative journalism, however, is expensive, and the 24-hour news organizations also had to make a profit.


All of the major news media are owned by corporations whose goal is to make a profit for their investors. One of the ways to increase profits is to decrease expenditures. Cable news organizations learned rather quickly that it is less expensive to fill airtime with an endless stream of pundits than it is to pay trained journalists to produce substantive reporting. Reporting and journalism still existed, but it filled only a portion of the 24-hour cycle. Much of the rest was filled with various pundits offering their opinion on whatever news story was current at the time.


The major news media are also in competition for viewers. Ratings are important for profits because higher ratings correlate with higher advertising revenues. An advertiser will pay more to air a commercial that will be seen by 10 million people than he will for a commercial that will be seen by 1 million people. News executives are, therefore, under pressure to attract and keep viewers. They are pressured to air what sells, that which brings viewers in and keeps viewers glued to the screen. We all know that sex sells, but with news channels, it is also very evident that fear and anxiety sells.


Stay tuned for murder and mayhem! Stay tuned for war and terrorism! Stay tuned for pestilence and plague! But whatever you do, stay tuned!!


As a result of these and numerous other factors, cable news networks are filled with sensationalistic, fear-mongering stories and an almost endless stream of pundits offering their opinions on the sensationalistic, fear-mongering stories.


Then, along came the internet and social media.


When the major news organizations began using the internet as a platform to publish stories, one of the things they added was the Comment Box. The Comment Box allowed readers like you and me to respond to the stories. The Comment Box allowed readers like you and me to express our two cents. The Comment Box allowed readers like you and me to become pundits too. It made it possible for everyone in the world to share his or her “expert” opinion on any and every news story. Cliff Clavin loved the Comment Box.


Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. took it up a notch, because now everyone with a quarter and an internet connection could effectively become their own 24-hour “news” outlet. Rather than get lost in a stream of 500 comments beneath a news story on a major news website, we can post a link on our social media platforms and pontificate about it. We can be just like the television pundits. And like many of the television pundits, we can do this regardless of whether or not we have the slightest clue about the topic at hand. Because we are all now pundits with a public platform, it is very easy to give in to the temptation to believe that we are experts – or at least that our opinion is just as valid as that of an actual expert. In short, social media has made it very easy for all of us to morph into little Cliff Clavin.


Billions of people have suddenly became experts on everything from foreign policy to the best treatment of cancer. Where did they get this expertise? From the Facebook pundit who lives in the next apartment.


The internet has messed with our brains. The fact that we can find an answer to almost any question by clicking a few buttons on our phones doesn’t make us omniscient. The fact that we can contact anyone in any part of the world in seconds doesn’t make us omnipresent. The fact that we can share our opinions on the same internet that contains the websites of major news organizations doesn’t make us omnipotent.


Most of us know a lot about a few things, a little about a few things, and nothing about many things. Most people know a lot about the things they’ve spent most of their lives doing. Electricians know a lot about how to re-wire a house. A heart surgeon knows a lot about bypass surgery. Almost everybody knows a little about a larger number of things. The electrician may also play golf as a hobby. The heart doctor may read European history as a pastime. But we all also know nothing about a huge number of things. The heart doctor may know nothing about golf. The electrician may know nothing about Chinese politics.


Social media platforms have tempted all of us to feel the need to weigh in on everything, even topics we have absolutely no knowledge about. When we open our mouths on subjects we know nothing about, we become little Cliff Clavins. We become know-it-alls who sound quite foolish.


If I know nothing about golf, my putting advice is not worth anything. If I know nothing about electrical wiring, my opinion on how to install a ceiling fan is not worth anything. If I am not a heart surgeon, my opinion on how to best perform a triple-bypass is not worth anything. If I am not a medical professional, my opinion on the best medical treatment for cancer is not worth anything even if I got my information from my cousin Bill who is an accountant who played the game “Operation” when he was a kid and never set off the buzzer.


Medical professionals are not infallible either. However, if you need heart surgery, where are you going to go for treatment? A trained heart surgeon or one of the billions of Cliff Clavins on Facebook who will tell you that coronary blockage is a myth and that all you need is some essential oils? Social media is bringing medicine back to the age of witch doctors.


The internet gives us the illusion that if we know nothing about a topic, all we have to do is ask our iPhone, get the answer, and bingo, we're knowledgeable. Information, however, is not the same as knowledge. The problem here is that one of the other things that many of us do not have is the knowledge of how to differentiate between bad sources of information and good sources of information. The internet is like a giant library in which a medical journal is shelved right next to a notebook written by someone high on cocaine. People on social media commonly cite the one as being just as authoritative as the other.


As Christians, if we are going to use the internet and social media platforms, let us become an example of how to do it in a God-honoring and wise way that is humble enough to recognize our own limits. We don’t have to express an opinion about everything, and it’s foolish to express an opinion on a topic about which we know absolutely nothing.


P.S. I know a little about cows, and I'm pretty sure they do not make good guard animals.