Fact-checking the pundits: Pundits meet PunditFact
Donna Brazile, Jackie Kucinich and Kathleen Parker discussed the state of television news punditry and the fate of NBC's Brian Williams at an event hosted Tuesday by PunditFact at the National Press Club.
Williams took himself off the air last week after it was revealed he embellished or inflated details of a helicopter convoy he was traveling in during the first days of the Iraq war. In interviews, Williams said he riding in a Chinook helicopter that took fire. However, that was not the case.
"I just don’t understand how you can make something up," Brazile, a CNN and ABC political commentator, told moderator Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute.
Said Kucinich, senior politics editor of the Daily Beast: People "watch the evening news, and suddenly, they can’t trust Brian Williams? How does that make the rest of us look?"
Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist, criticized Williams' response to the wave of criticism.
"This shouldn’t scrap his entire career, but I didn’t like his apology," Parker said. "The only way you can make an apology matter is if it has real consequences, and I don’t think he showed contrition."
But if Brazile, Kucinich and Parker had harsh words for Williams, they were equally blunt about the limits of their line of work, especially when it comes to correcting bad information that comes out in a broadcast.
Parker, who once hosted a show on CNN with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, said she asked producers why they don’t correct mistakes on air and was told because corrections take time. And time means money.
"When you do a correction on television, if it takes a minute and half, that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars of network time," Parker said.
That is what television producers said, but Parker said she personally doubted that money was the main reason. "What I really think is what they are assuming, based on ample evidence, is that the American people will forget in about two more seconds," Parker said. "If they just keep quiet about it, the news cycle will change and attentions will shift."
Speaking to a crowd of about 50, and a larger audience online, the pundits were aware of the roles they play when they are put on air. (You can watch a replay of the event for free by enrolling here.) They know the political slot they fill and the need to play to those expectations. While they won’t say something they don’t believe, nor are they fully themselves on air.
"I’m always on the left," Brazile said. "It’s like being an actress. I’ve learned to be an actress being on TV."
"On television, you need to fit into these neatly packaged view," Brazile added later in the conversation.
This was abundantly clear to Parker as well.
"I am called on to be the center-right voice at the table," Parker said. "I’m not going to suddenly start talking out of school. I’m there to make that argument because they (the producers) are looking for a balance."
The group also said they know what sells: Being loud and forceful.
At the same time, when asked what journalists should do to regain the public’s trust, Kucinich said the key is to be fair. "Will fair sell?" Tompkins asked.
Kucinich: "God I hope so."
Al Tompkins, Kathleen Parker, Jackie Kucinich and Donna Brazile. (Photo/Amy Hollyfield)