The Pitfalls of Alleged Expertise

Let me preface this post by saying that this is not intended as a personal attack on Robert Thompson. Although I’ve never met the man, by all accounts he’s a very nice guy, a good colleague and a strong teacher. In this story, Thompson is more a symptom than cause of the problem.

For those who don’t know who Robert J. Thompson is, you’ve probably read many of his quotes, as he’s one of the most quoted American academics in the mainstream press, a staple “expert” opinion on matters about television and popular culture more broadly. He’s built such a reputation as a “quote-machine” that there are articles about his journalistic presence and critiques of some of his more unusual areas of “expertise,” such as spaghetti tacos.

Among most television scholars, Thompson’s quotability is both an annoyance and a joke. Usually, my biggest gripe about Thompson quotations is that it presents an inaccurate face of the field of television studies to the general populace: the field that I consider myself part of is not connected to Thompson’s branch, as he doesn’t participate in the same conferences or publish in the same journals. I’ve had students, friends and acquaintances point to a Thompson quote and ask me if I do similar work as he does, or assume that Syracuse is a hotbed of television studies because of his ubiquity. (I don’t, and it isn’t.)

Typically, a Thompson quote offers broad platitudes about some phenomenon’s cultural importance, with a casual reference to a historical precedent – the effect of such quotations is mostly harmless, adding little to a story but implied authority. But every once in awhile, there’s an example of Thompson’s quotes seriously harming a journalistic piece, and it was one of those recent instances that inspired my ire to pique, first on Twitter and now here.

On December 26, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter (two media journalists I generally respect) published an interesting New York Times piece about Jon Stewart’s coverage of the Republican blockage of the 9-11 responder health care bill, asking how much Stewart’s attention influenced the bill’s eventual passing and how do we categorize his brand of satire and/or journalism. Thompson is quoted numerous times (the only external expert referenced), and frames the core focus of the story, comparing Stewart to landmark television journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Thompson is not a scholar of journalism, of media satire, or of politics, but a generalist about American television, and that lack of expertise shows.

The core comparison is ridiculous in a number of ways. First, it’s based on an overly simplistic and disputable history of media causality, with Murrow causing Senator McCarthy’s fall from grace in the 1950s and Cronkite triggering a shift in popular opinion about the Vietnam War. Second, the media environment of the 1950s and 1960s is so drastically different than today that it makes no sense to compare a basic cable comedian reaching a tiny portion of the viewing audience to network journalists who were regularly watched by more than a quarter of all television viewers. Finally, these instances of advocacy journalism by Murrow and Cronkite were exceptions in decades-long careers of being traditional “objective” journalists, making such moments stand out and resonate through the contrast with their typical broadcasts, while Stewart always includes opinion and critique as part of his satirical blend.

There are interesting things to be said about Stewart’s advocacy and its place in contemporary journalism, but framing the entire story about a weak comparison to Murrow (as is indicated by the story’s headline) turns the piece into a lost opportunity. This ABC News segment about the Times story’s core question does a much better job of complicating the comparison, drawing upon experts with more relevant expertise than Thompson, but the focus still remains on “is Stewart like traditional journalists?” rather than trying to get at what’s really going on. I wonder how the story might have turned out if they’d talked to scholars doing actual research on these areas, like Geoffrey Baym or Jeffrey Jones.

So what went wrong here? Obviously, I think Thompson did the reporters a disservice by pointing them toward the Murrow/Cronkite comparison in an unsophisticated way – although you never know the difference between what an interviewee says about how it gets reported, so perhaps Carter and Stelter oversimplified or misrepresented Thompson’s analysis. Carter and Stelter certainly failed to get quotes from actual experts on journalism, satire or media politics, as the ABC piece shows the benefits from getting academics to engage issues with more complexity. However, given the Christmas-time context, perhaps other academics were unavailable to comment and Thompson (who is always available to comment) was a fall-back option. But as a friend of mine commented on Twitter, the presence of Thompson quotes leads most media scholars to assume journalistic laziness, whether warranted or not.

There are lessons to be learned from this instance of the poor use of expertise. It is incumbent on academics with real expertise to put ourselves out there as quotable sources for journalists, recognizing the need for accessible perspectives to enter into the public sphere and extending our educational mission more broadly through the realm of journalism. It’s also important for experts to recognize the limits of our expertise, be willing to say no to requests that are outside our abilities to add substantial thoughts to the conversation, and offer suggestions of names of scholars who are experts in a given topic. I regularly turn down journalistic requests about topics where my opinions would be either uneducated or unproductive, and try to offer recommendations for other scholars who could be more useful – I’ve refused and referred requests for out-of-my-depths topics like Hollywood marriages, celebrity chefs, and recent developments on American Idol. I don’t know if Thompson does this, but based on what I’ve read, it seems like one of his chief assets is a willingness to offer expertise on anything to anyone.

For journalists, it’s vital to seek out actual experts rather than just the usual suspects from the rolodex. In this instance, I think Carter and Stelter fell down on their role as “news analysts” by abdicating the actual analysis to Thompson instead of examining his claims with a bit more depth or nuance. I understand that journalists are under pressure to produce content with smaller staffs and quicker turnaround time than ever before, but if you’re going to seek out expertise, you need to be sure that you’ve actually gotten it and can represent those perspectives in a way that improves your story, rather than points it in the wrong direction. And when you encounter an expert who complicates the assumed narrative of a story, or questions your core assumptions about a topic, perhaps you should take that as a sign that your approach needs a bit more nuance. And that maybe you shouldn’t be writing stories about spaghetti tacos in the first place.

Filed under: Academia, Media Studies, Press, Television Tagged: jon stewart, New York Times, robert thompson

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Wed, 29 Dec 2010 13:45:38 +0000