Being a successful media pundit depends on a couple of core skills – one is a capacity for sounding absolutely confident about your predictions; the other is your ability to seamlessly and plausibly change gear after the fact without denting your public credibility at all.
Traditionally, pundits have gotten away with these 180-degree reversals because of the mainstream media’s monopoly on analysis. Being the sole mediator allowed established outlets to play footsie under the table with the poohbahs who told us what to think about economics, politics and everything else. Each needed the other.
Now people are wising up to this confidence trick. Like Dorothy and Toto, we can see the red-faced man behind the curtain pulling the levers. At this point, he is vaguely aware that he has been discovered, but he’s still frantically pulling the levers trying to pretend there is something more to the wizardry than there is.
In the past month or two, we have seen curtains pulled asunder across the globe as as once booming and authoritative media voices are exposed as artificially and thinly constructed pipsqueaks bouncing around in echo chambers of their own making.
In Australia, there was the now widely recognised misjudgement of the press gallery over the significance of the Prime Minister’s speech to parliament about the misogyny of the Opposition Leader. The condescending accusation by legacy media that social media had misunderstood the “context” of the speech was vaguely amusing at the time. But it now looks plainly ridiculous. They missed the story and they still don’t accept it.
In the UK, the once almighty BBC has not only made monumental editorial mistakes – bungling an investigation into Jimmy Savile’s record as a child abuser and wrongly implicating a Tory peer in abuse allegations – but it has given the impression that no-one is in charge.
And in the US, there was the cosy consensus of the mainstream media in describing the presidential election as “too close to call”. And when they were all proved wildly wrong, they demonstrated an equally shameless hindsight bias that allowed them to walk away apparently unmarked by their bad calls.
Outside politics, we continue to hear confident forecasts about interest rates, the share market, the dollar and the economy from legions of television economists who when proven wrong tell us that while the outcome was not their “central case”, it was within their “range of expectations”.
There’s an economic reason for this explosion in media punditry. The news has been commoditised and everyone has access to the same information in real time. That leaves the established, legacy media to suck its metaphorical thumb, indulging in idle conjecture about what happens next.
So at what point does the public twig that all these people behind the curtain of authority bestowed on them by traditional media are just making guesses – educated guesses maybe – but guesses nevertheless? At what point do we all just go to the source material ourselves and make our own judgements?
That point is arriving. But for now, like Oz desperately manipulating the levers, the media is telling us to play no attention to the man behind the curtain.
(Hear my discussion with the ABC Radio National’s Jonathan Green on this theme here).