In his latest post, Tony Lambino makes an interesting argument about pundits and social norms. He says that pundits' comments, for example on statements of public figures, are a manifestation of the social norms of a society. Punditry is a fascinating phenomenon and a recent development in the mass media - and might have changed the media landscape quite significantly.
Pundits discuss current affairs from their own point of view, often together with or in contrast to other pundits. Pundits can be experts, such as academics, but often journalists stylize themselves to be experts on political and other issues. It seems debatable to me whether punditry it is indeed part of the media's role in democracy.
The media are supposed to not only disseminate information, but also to provide orientation to the audience, which can take the form of commentary, analysis, and discussion among people that stand for different positions. What's questionable is when media hardly do anything else. The German media law, for instance, holds very explicitly that the media shall always clearly and recognizably separate information from comment and opinion. I'm not convinced that all, or even the majority of media outlets, always draw a clear line between news and commentary. Journalists have become experts on virtually anything. There are news shows out there that consist of journalists shouting at each other without engaging in any serious debate. There are media outlets out there that don't do anything but broadcasting their own opinions. Does this reflect social norms? It might actually mostly reflect journalists' joy of speculating and talking to each other.
Social norms are behaviors that are agreed upon to be good behaviors by the majority of the people. Social norms are based on consensus. Pundits hardly represent any consensus. They often come either from the far left or the far right of the political spectrum and can be suspected of speaking mainly on their own behalf or on behalf of a rather narrow ideology. These kinds of views can't be a manifestation of social norms because they're polarized, not agreed upon.
Even should all pundits agree on something - which is very unlikely - I would still question whether their agreement is a social norm. Who are these people and what's their legitimization? I'm sure you've heard or read a million statements that begin with: "The people feel...," "the people want..." - Often the "opinion of the people" suspiciously looks like the opinion of the pundit, and no one else. When media personalities - journalists, famous bloggers, talk show hosts - act as pundits and give us - loudly - their opinion, I wonder: How would they know? They're no specialists. They usually don't have a degree in biochemistry to comment on Global Warming. Or studied economics to thoroughly analyze the financial crisis. Journalists with specialized educations are rare, and even they should only provide background that helps people understand an issue, without serving the opinion blended with the information and cooked all in one pot at very high temperature.
It's not accountability when a handful of pundits appoint themselves guardians of our social norms with no other legitimization than that there happens to be a microphone about. It's hubris.
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