What we love (and hate) about political commentary:


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Political commentary: where the great intellects of our time appear together to discuss ideas about our country, and express concerns about the future of our democracy. Or a bunch of angry “journalists” who talk as loud as they can for ratings. Both inhabit the media and have audiences that they influence with their words. In one moment, we can hear words of wisdom from these strong-minded analysts, and in the next, complete nonsense. Below are Grant Smith and Jacob Worrell’s opinions on the best (and worst) parts of what political commentators do.

Bad: Being overemotional while reporting

The best way to convey how bad this common quirk of commentators is by an example, although it is an older one. In June of 2012, MSNBC host Ed Shultz was covering the recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Schultz, who was perfectly open about his support of Walker’s opposition, was visibly shaken when he reported that Walker had survived the recall and would stay in office. At first he tried to refute his own network’s reporting, by claiming the race was too close to call, then he claimed that Scott Walker could be indicted with no evidence to support this claim. He then, after finally admitting Walker had won, added that it was “not going to be an easy night for this broadcaster.”  Schultz let his emotions get the best of him, and his commentary suffered because of it. With any job that requires objectivity, any personal feelings must be left at the door. Nobody asked Schultz, or any other commenter, how he or she feels about what happened.

Good: Creating forums for debate

It is important that we have straight news, such as NBC Nightly News or any of the other network nightly news shows. But what is missing on these platforms is debate. Any given night of a cable or opinion news show, a host (if they are good) will feature a variety of voices, each with a different take on the story. A viewer can have the added benefit of not only being told about the story, but also having the option to be further informed about it and have access to each side. For the scores of uninformed voters out there, these segments on political commentary programs can be invaluable to making an informed decision.

Bad: Taking quotes out of context

Commentators usually use factual information to support whatever claims they are making. This is good until something is taken out of context and skewed to fit a particular angle that may reflect what was said inaccurately. Many conservative commentators claimed that Barack Obama did not think that business owners had earned what they had, when he said that they “didn’t build that,” but that statement was taken completely out of context (Obama was talking about the nation’s infrastructure). Things like this diminish the credibility of a commentator and overtly reveal what the commentator intended to be a covert agenda.

Good: Accurate fact-checking and careful journalism

Commentators, while they have leeway to debate and be opinionated, are still to be held accountable for conveying factual information to the public. In the media world, the responsibility falls squarely on the media source to ensure all information is true. Should they fail to do this, they risk losing valuable credibility and thus readers or viewers.

Bad: Genuine news reporters attempting to take on the role of a commentator

News reporters cover news. Period. It should never be acceptable for a reporter covering a news story to throw in an opinionated statement edgewise, under the guise of credible, factual reporting. News shouldn’t tell people what to think, it should tell them what to think about.