Newspaper pundits once commanded a nation’s attention. No longer
The recent snub of the presidential debates by the leading candidates of the respective political party coalitions was a sad indictment of how the political establishment has come to view the mainstream media – with utter disdain.
That one of the contestants – Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA) – showed up to “debate” with the moderators did not in any way redeem the debate.
Similarly, for President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta to give the debate a wide berth was a clear testament of his contempt for the media, which he does not think are useful for his time and political endeavours.
Why is it that the art of punditry in this country seems to be under attack? Why is it that newspaper pundits seem to be an endangered species?
Although pundits are a dime a dozen, writing in the various mainstream daily and weekly newspapers, their collective influence and power to affect public policy is not taken with the seriousness it deserves.
The presidential debates, which included debates of their respective running mates, exposed this belief, that the mainstream media no longer matters in the candidates’ quest for political power and state capture. Let me illustrate what I am saying with an anecdote.
Fifty two years ago, The United of States of America’s most influential pundit went to the White House for a meeting with President Lyndon Johnson.
The fact of the matter is, President Johnson, for lack of a better expression, had begged pundit Walter Lippmann to come to White House for a man-to-man discussion.
Johnson had been worryingly concerned that America’s most powerful newspaper columnist was against the Vietnam War. Johnson wanted to speak to Lippmann eyeball-to-eyeball and persuade the great Lippmann that America’s prosecution of the war was to the benefit of the Great American state.
As Johnson’s adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote in a memo – Johnson wanted to “plug his (Lippmann’s) guns”.
COTERIE OF ADVISERS
Johnson kept Lippmann waiting, so the meeting began at dusk. “Ah Walter” said President Johnson, as Ronald Steel would later capture the moment in his 1980 biography: Walter Lippmann and the American Century. “You just make yourself comfortable on the sofa over there and we’ll have a little talk.”
For the next one hour, Johnson spoke nonstop about his Vietnam policy. He asked for Lippmann’s advice. He shared with Lippmann off-the-record details about the war. He then showed Lippmann’s a leaked copy of a speech he planned to deliver the next day – a speech that included Lippmann’s own suggestion about what he wanted America to do in Vietnam.
After Johnson was done with the legendary pundit, Bundy, took over and spent so much time with Lippmann that it was the columnist who finally ended the meeting.
“He was exhausted”, observed Steel. Why would the President of the United States and one of his key strategists expend so much time trying to win over a mere newspaper columnist? Because back then, pundits mattered.
The President and his coterie of advisers and policy wonks would wake up every day and scour the newspapers to read what columnists such as Lippmann had to say because what they had to say mattered a great deal.
When Lippmann and other pundits of the day agreed on something, they shaped and swayed the country’s public opinion. Likewise, if they happened to disagree on an issue, they set the terms of the public debate.
The crux of the matter is that Johnson, after all that effort, did not persuade Lippmann and that is considered to have been a turning point in Johnson’s presidency because Lippmann helped mount opposition to the war through his writings.
Imagine, if you may, President Kenyatta seeking the wise counsel of our newspaper pundits. Honest: those days are gone by.
The decline of print media opinion shapers has been in inverse proportion to the exponential growth of TV commentators and talk show hosts, in Kenya as indeed elsewhere in the world.
Today, these commentators and hosts consider themselves celebrities and are, in fact treated as such. They earn a hell of a lot of money and command prestige, real or imagined. They have helped kill the old newspaper pundit as we knew him.
Yet, with all their celebrity statuses, the amazing thing is that they do not command influence and power the way a newspaper pundit would, and did, and that is the paradox of the TV punditocracy; as their stars have soared, they have become less and less important.
But make no mistake – the political establishment is hardly interested in what print Op-Ed pages have to say, and would rather watch the talk shows.
The rise of new media has, no doubt, had had a deleterious effect on print media punditry. The explosion of social media in the last decade or so in Kenya has occupied the space once considered the domain of pundits, who have had to fight for attention from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp among others.
With the coming of social media, came interactive news media. Social media allows instant feedback, listening in and even affords visual engagement. To this extent, social media has not been kind to print pundits.
Relegated to the back burners of serious policy considerations by the political establishment, some of the print pundits have been reduced to partisan opinion shaping, hence kowtowing to political parties leaders’ wishes.
They have resorted to hawking their punditry, by aligning themselves to the highest bidder.