Being a pundit can be a hazardous occupation. As we witness the unexpected all over the political map, it becomes clear that being a pundit can be an invitation to brickbats, rotten tomatoes and wicked laughter. “Ahah”, gleefully chortle the critics, “They got it wrong…..again!” The fact that these commentators probably didn’t get it right either, is of no concern as their views were only broadcast among friends, not over national media outlets.
Punditry appears to be an indefinitely defined and late-blooming profession. If you were to walk into a Grade Five classroom and ask the young students what they want to be when they grow up, I’ll bet that not one child would answer “What I want to be, more than anything in the world is…..not an astronaut, not the Prime Minister, not the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs…..what I want to be is a pundit!.”
How sensible. And yet, some 30 years later, we have a surfeit of the species. Where do they come from? When did they make the decision to pontificate on matters weighty? And did they realize the risks? Obviously not.
Even here in Canada, where the majority of us are purported to be benign, sensible, and polite inhabitants of the ‘mushy middle’ ill-advised pronouncements continue to occur. Admittedly, sometimes the ‘prophets’ get it right. On Monday, May 5, 2015, in the Toronto Star, Satya Das, an Edmontonian author and policy guru wrote: “Rachel Notley’s New Democrats will prevail over Premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives in today’s Alberta election.”
Kudos to Mr. Das. However, even he wouldn`t go so far as to predict a sweep whereby an orange wave wound up covering 53 constituencies, with one seat tied as I write this; and the Wild Rose in opposition with 21. (As you may have heard, MSNBC host Ed Schultz re-named them `The Wild Horse` Party. I guess he confused them with the Calgary Stampede.)
In Great Britain, David Cameron and his Conservatives surprised those who predicted at best a minority government, winding up with a clear majority in the 650 seat House of Commons, decimating the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party, while the Scottish National Party corralled most of the 59 seats up for grabs. The group that came closest to getting it right was Ladbrokes, the book-makers. The odds changed rapidly with reports from exit polls, but not fast enough to avoid them facing a £20m payout. As voting ended, Ladbrokes cut the odds on the Tories getting most seats to 1/100, Labour becoming the longshot, at 16/1.
In 2013, on this side of the ocean, the B.C. Liberals delivered a severe shock to the polls by taking 50 seats to 33 for the NDP, and one each to the Green Party and an independent. In Ontario I only know two people who predicted a Liberal majority government, although undoubtedly there were others who called it right.
In Quebec, Pauline Marois’ PQ which was looking for a majority, after 18 months of minority government, started out with a small lead in the polls, but after Pierre Karl Péladeau entered the fray, her government was suffocated under a rejuvenated Liberal Party.
Probably the most monumental media goof took place in the U.S. in the 1948 Presidential election, when the Chicago Tribune’s banner headline announced “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Truman, Vice President under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the underdog in that presidential race, against the Republican Governor of New York State, Thomas E. Dewey. One of the problems for the Tribune was the early deadline, which was before the Eastern States had substantial poll results. So the Tribune relied on a journalist named Arthur Sears Henning who had been right in four out of five presidential elections. during the preceding 20 years. Unfortunately for them, he got it wrong this time, dropping his average from 80% down to 66%. Barely a pass. Even when the polls indicated Truman was pulling ahead, Hennings stuck to his prediction until the result was obvious. 150,000 copies of the headline were printed before the error was corrected. Truman on his way to Washington from his home in Independence, Missouri, stopped in the St. Louis train station, and there he was photographed in great glee, holding high a copy of the paper.
More recently the photo was put to use when the Supreme Court of the U.S. upheld Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Both Fox News and CNN jumped the gun by announcing – incorrectly – that the mandate had been repealed. Obama and Truman are posed in a photoshopped picture, the former with his iPad showing the erroneous CNN headline and Truman holding up his famous front page photo.
On the other hand, being a novelist might be even more daunting. According to author Simon Mawer, Pundits always have something to write about; the novelist just has a blank screen. However, having read Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky as well as reviews of his several other books, I think he’s chosen the right profession.