What Do Celebrity Pundits Actually Do?

Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity – they sure make a lot of noise and get a lot of attention. But what is their impact? How do they affect the political process?

They don’t seem to change anyone’s votes, as David Brooks pointed out last week in his New York Times column. Reviewing the election campaigns of the past few years, he concludes: “It is a story of remarkable volume and utter weakness. It is the story of media mavens who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche — even in the Republican Party. It is a story as old as ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain.” (See “The Wizard of Beck.”)

It is understandable that the pundits themselves would get caught up in their own pretense of power. But they do have followers, and the stations that carry them do make money. Almost certainly, no one listens to them to help make up their minds. They may want a new horror story to retail or a catchy phrase to repeat, but they already know what they think. So why do they listen?

We might better think of these media phenomena as sports events or rock concerts. Sports fans don’t watch their favorite teams in order to make up their minds about continuing to root for them. The followers of rock stars aren’t there to consider buying their newest CDs. The crowd is pumped up, engaged, sharing a communal experience.

A closer analogy might be a political rally, where citizens come together to support a candidate or protest a government policy. They come to reaffirm what they already know. To be sure, inevitably there are speeches and ideas are expressed. It can look like a discussion or the presentation of a case, a chance to think, but really it is a form of communal enjoyment, a ritual, an immersion in a larger process.

On one level, then, these celebrity pundits are part of a larger development in our culture: news as entertainment. Less and less do people watch or read the news to be informed. They want to be excited, moved, horrified. They seek some form of emotional distraction or release. They want to enjoy themselves.

On another level, this represents a search for communal experience. As our real communities are increasingly broken and fragmented, we seek connection through mass media and virtual experience.

If we think of it that way, it is easier to understand that the celebrity pundits are not manipulating public opinion, as they would like to think, but actually they are themselves being manipulated to serve a demand and a need. They have to maintain the pace, find the new diversions, keep the entertainment coming. And, judging from their continuing celebrity, they do seem to succeed at that quite well.

It just bears an uncanny resemblance to politics.