Publisher's Corner:
Saying "no" to sound bite scholarship

Kimberly Brown and Tom Goldstein

In the original American populistic dream, the omnicompetence of the common man was fundamental and indispensable. It was believed that he could, without much special preparation, pursue the professions and run the government. Today he knows that he cannot even make his breakfast without using devices, more or less mysterious to him, which expertise has put at his disposal; and when he sits down to breakfast and looks at his morning newspaper, he reads about a whole range of vital and intricate issues and acknowledges, if he is candid with himself, that he has not acquired competence to judge most of them.

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, 1962

Since Columbia's distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter wrote those elegant words, the use of experts--particularly in journalism and most particularly in television--has grown so fast, so furiously, and so promiscuously that journalism itself has been degraded. Many of those who have agreed to offer their expertise have seen their reputations swollen. Others have suffered as being little more than a convenient "dial-a-quote."

What better way to gain insights into the changing role of experts than to ask two experts on expertise itself? Victor Navasky, the long-time publisher of The Nation magazine and Delacorte Professor of Magazine Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and Jethro Lieberman, a professor at New York Law School who has taught a Columbia political science course on the U.S. Supreme Court and American politics since 1998 (both of whom happen to be friends of ours), have both written tellingly on the subject of expertise.

"We are drowning in experts," says Lieberman, author of The Tyranny of the Experts.1 With more and more television outlets, producers are "more desperate" to fill time, and they keep looking "for more people to do this," says Lieberman. "Part of the modern age is to make anybody an expert," he says. But, paradoxically, journalists rely far too heavily on a small band of "usual suspects," whose primary qualifications are that they like journalists, return phone calls, have a familiarity with plain English, and can reduce complex matters to simple sound bites.

In other words, success for a professor as an expert may mean acting quite unlike a professor. Professors deliberate and spend their time understanding nuances. Those qualities are not necessarily ones that get a person quoted. Ultimately expertise can get cheapened. "Most things worth talking about are complicated," says Lieberman "and you don't learn about complicated stuff in 30 seconds."

Moreover, journalists tend to use experts in the wrong way. Rather than use experts to provide background and context, journalists too often ask for predictions. "There is a confusion of expertise with fame, and once one has fame, one gets called on to pronounce," explains Navasky. For Navasky, television is largely responsible for the deification of experts. But this deification is hollow, for television-age experts tend to be wrong as often as they are right.

In the introduction to the revised 1998 edition of The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation,2 Navasky and his co-author Christopher Cerf write that television "is a medium where a person who is wrong at least half the time is interviewed by another person whose chief qualification is that he has no opinion on the subject. From this encounter the truth is supposed to emerge."

Navasky and Cerf's pomposity-puncturing book is full of predictions that have proved to be humorously and not-so-humorously off-target. For instance, campaigning for re-election in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson pronounced, "[W]e are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."

And how do the experts on expertise sum up? "Contemporary experts look foolish in the light of history," says Navasky, who points out that experts deliver opinions that journalists could just as easily have delivered themselves if not for their tight adherence to the journalistic convention of objectivity. Alternatively, says Lieberman: "What it boils down to is that experts cannot act responsibly when a nation has an attention span of 20 seconds."

Since it would be too much to expect the very nature of television and the American public to change any time soon, it will be up to the researchers and scholars to protect themselves. Experts should resist the temptation to hold forth on issues outside their areas of expertise. They should refuse to engage in frivolous predictions. That can be left to others. When asked for a comment, it is easy enough to just say "no."

1. Lieberman, Jethro K. The Tyranny of the Experts; How Professionals Are Closing the Open Society (NY: Walker, 1970).

2. Cerf, Christopher, and Victor Navasky (eds.) The Experts Speak : The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation (NY: Pantheon, 1984).

Related links...

  • Eric Alterman, "So You Want to Be a Pundit?", Lingua Franca

  • Panel, "The Press and the Presidency: A Year of Crisis," Columbia First Amendment Breakfast Series

  • "Pundit Central" column, Slate

  • KIMBERLY BROWN, a 1998 graduate of the journalism school, is a free-lance writer. TOM GOLDSTEIN, who graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1969 and Columbia Law School in 1971, is dean of the journalism school.