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Sean Hannity is NOT an almighty janitor

Let me ask you a question: sight unseen and all other things being equal, who would you rather hire to fix your toilet: a self-taught handyman or a graduate of a vocational school?

This is Sean Hannity. He is creating the evil that he's also delivering us from. Good business plan, actually.

Of the preceding question, of course you’re going to hire the person with the degree. Same thing with a dentist or lawyer or doctor or nipple-hair-removal specialist. It’s not that it’s impossible to learn how to do these jobs through trial-and-error or apprenticeship, it’s just that when you’re dealing with the really important things (i.e. where you poop; your nipples), you want the security of a vetting process.

None of us has time to do the vetting process ourselves, so we have to rely on others to do it for us. In the absence of a direct recommendation from a friend, we use trusted institutions. That’s really what a college degree or a union certification is, a big rubber stamp that says “we stake the reputation of the Vidal Sassoon academy on this guy: go ahead and let him wax your taint.”

If we all accept this premise — that you want someone pre-vetted for quality over someone who’s not — then let me ask you a follow up question:

Why the hell do we allow our political commentators to fill our heads with opinions without applying to them the same standards we have for plumbers or hair dressers?

Let’s take a look at some top political analysts and their educations, shall we?

Rush Limbaugh: Dropped out of college after two semesters.

Glenn Beck: Took one college theology course, but didn’t finish it.

Sean Hannity: Dropped out of two colleges.

I know, I know, I’ve already gotten you angry. My guess is that the last few paragraphs will set off two types of indignant commenters.

To the first group: yes, these are all right-wing politicos. Unfortunately, for the kind of faux-equivalency I usually like to maintain in these pieces, the left-wing is pretty well-educated. That said, you can console yourself with the knowledge that the three men listed above hold sway over far, far more people than the entirety of MSNBC combined.

(One thing of note I discovered in researching this piece: Ann Coulter has a law degree … in evil.)

The second offended group might not be offended on political grounds, but they subscribe to a more universal — and dangerous — American ideology. That is, they are loathe to indulge the idea that someone’s education should enhance the quality of his opinions.

I say that this is an American ideology in the sense that our pop culture continually reinforces it. How many TV shows and movies have you watched where the so-called “educated” man is taught a lesson or two by the good-natured, salt-of-the-Earth types?

TV Tropes has a couple of names for this. My favorite? “The Almighty Janitor” (caution, clicking on this link will instantly rob you the next five hours of your day). Americans love to subvert the idea that an education actually teaches you anything. Just judging from the TV shows and movies we watch, it’s clear that no book-learnin’ can compete with hard-won, real-world wisdom.

Except, no, that isn’t right at all.

Let’s go back to the example at the start of this column: if you wouldn’t take advice about your toilet from a self-taught plumber, why on earth would you base your vote on the advice of a high-school educated radio personality?

I think there are two reasons why we do. The first is that radio and TV are such powerful mediums that we assume the vetting was done for us. We think to ourselves, “That guy has to know something, I mean, he’s on TV!”

But the only trait that matters to the executives deciding which people get on air is how well those people perform as broadcasters. Looks, voice, charisma, the ability to keep the show moving — it’s all covered pretty well in Broadcast News, so let’s not rehash it here.

The second reason we take their advice is simple: we already agree with it.

FOX News and MSNBC have self-selecting audiences. You’re not watching FOX News if you call it Faux News and you’re not flipping over to The Rachel Maddow Show if you spit a little every time you say “liberal.”

So when you hear an opinion, regardless of how baseless or uneducated it is, if it coincides with your own, you assume whoever said it must be pretty smart. This is why ratings are a poor argument for the validity of an opinion. If 20 million idiots agree with you, it doesn’t mean you’re right, just that you’re loud.

We’re left then with a major problem: there are many people on TV talking about current events without any real, substantive knowledge about them. But, the simple fact that they’re on TV makes us assume that they must know what they’re talking about. Further, when they say something we agree with, we assign them credibility that they didn’t actually earn.

The result of all this is lots and lots of shouting.

Here’s my solution: Every major college in America should start a program that combines elements of journalism, communications, mass-media, world history, geography, political science, and ethics into a TV Punditry major.

Then, when someone appears on TV to talk politics, either as a host or a guest, the “TVP, Ph.D.” or whatever should appear after his name. If it doesn’t, you can write off whatever they say. If it does, you don’t have to agree with everything that comes out of their mouth, but you can at least be relatively assured that the person isn’t a raving lunatic.

Now, of course, four years (or six or nine) would never be enough to make someone an expert in everything they have to know about to talk intelligently about all the news of the day, but hopefully it would be enough time to teach them that they don’t know everything.  That if someone asks them a question and they’re unqualified to answer, they’ll say so.  That while strong opinions make for good TV, they make for bad political policy.  And so on.

Doing so might actually stop things like this from happening.

Yeah, I know, I’m offering a solution that has no chance of actually happening in the real world. I don’t think this little blog post is really going to change things all that much. One thing I do hope it does, though, is get you to think just a little bit about what the qualifications are of the people you listen to. Just how much does Bill Maher really know about the dangers of vaccinations (SPOILER ALERT: not very much)? Just how much research does Glenn Beck really do on Woodrow Wilson? Just how nuanced is Sean Hannity’s understanding of the Middle East?

All valuable questions to ask, so, you know, I hope you ask them.

(P.S. Let me undercut one more snarky comment I’m sure to get: just what qualifies me to criticize any of them? I think a little thing called a B.A. in English from The College of New Jersey! You read me right: The College of New Jersey. That thing you just felt? It’s called a facepalm.)

Photo Credit: Media Matters

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9 Responses to “Sean Hannity is NOT an almighty janitor”

November 8, 2011 at 12:04 PM

I never really thought about it before, but I did just assume political pundits had formal education. Hmm … enlightening.

November 8, 2011 at 12:46 PM

Or would a test of some shape, form or fashion be more appropriate?

I’m sure that Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck would all perform better than I, and my college degree is in Government and a minor in Economics.

Education does not equal expertise.

November 8, 2011 at 12:59 PM

I’m fine with a test.

And I agree with you that education does not equal expertise — there are lots of instances where a self-taught man is far better than one who has a doctorate in the same field (I just finished the Steve Jobs biography — a smarter autodidact, you will not find).

My problem is with vetting — just what qualifies these people to talk about the issue? We assume that they’ve been vetted *because* they’re on TV, which is dangerous because it makes us lazy about questioning their qualifications. If the guy at the diner starts going on about Obama’s birth certificate, you assume it’s okay just to tune him out. If a guy on TV does it, you assume there must be something to it.

A college degree is simply a kind of vetting process. It says that a group of experts in the field agree that this person is qualified to talk about the subject. It doesn’t mean that the person is smarter than an uneducated man, or even that he has more expertise, just that if you don’t have the time to figure out whether or not he knows what he’s talking about, you can take his college’s word for it.

That’s all I’m asking for — that we get some set of universal minimum for the people who yammer on television. Like it or not, their opinion carries far more weight than just about anybody’s. When you’re dealing with silly things like TV (certainly very few TV bloggers have been through an intensive mass-media analysis program), that’s all well and good, but when you’re dealing with big decisions in a democracy, I start to get very nervous.

November 8, 2011 at 1:09 PM

See, you just lost me … “When you’re dealing with big decisions in a democracy…” Last I checked neither Maher or Beck make big decisions in a democracy.

The only power these people have is the power that we give them. And I think they have very little affect on the political process, and it all ties back to a point you made earlier: “we already agree with them.” If you’re the type that sits and watches 2 hours of MSNBC or Fox News on any given day, then I would bet that you’ve already made your November decisions months if not years in advance.

If you agree with the supposition that general elections are won in the middle, then it is the mainstream media that has the most sway (Because as popular as they might be, calling Maddow, Beck, Limbaugh or any talking head “mainstream” would be a massive stretch).

November 8, 2011 at 1:36 PM

I recently read Martin Lindstrom’s book “Brandwashed” about how people are manipulated by advertising to buy things that they don’t necessarily want or need. I went into the book a libertarian with the belief that intelligent agents make rational decisions based on their own needs — I came out of it seriously rethinking my beliefs. Advertising cuts through your nervous system and attacks you right at your limbic system; you make decisions that don’t actually benefit you, because your ability to process those benefits has been compromised.

What does all this have to do with Bill Maher and Glenn Beck? The credibility that their platforms provide them is such that it suppresses our ability to make rational decisions about what they’re saying. We all like to pretend we’re the one that is strong enough to do our own research and make our own decisions, but for the most part, we wind up agreeing with what are favorite TV Characters (I mean pundits!) have to say about the issue.

The effect that they have on the political process might be less on a particular vote than the fact that the political process itself is subverted by their existence. What I mean is that everything, and I mean *everything*, in politics is now run through the cable news filter to see how it’ll play. That affects the country on a very deep level.

So far as what’s mainstream and what’s not — I’d argue that Limbaugh and Hannity (and to a lesser extent Beck) *are* the mainstream media:

Limbaugh: 15 million radio listeners,
Hannity: 14 million radio listeners. 2.5 million TV viewers.
Beck: 9 million radio listeners.

The 6:30 national news of all three broadcast networks combined? As of last night, 21 million total.

Which is more mainstream?

November 9, 2011 at 12:20 AM

Maybe mainstream isn’t the right word, but the middle is always about 20%, so, you know, whatever.

Loved the piece though, sir.

November 8, 2011 at 2:47 PM

Jay: brilliant. And great back and forth in the comments. Maybe we can make the same prerequisite
for becoming rich.

November 8, 2011 at 4:35 PM

No talk of Wisdom yet. There’s no designation after someone’s name that can account for their wisdom. Some pundits have wisdom and can discern quite well, even without degrees. Also – I love Ann Coulter.;-)

November 9, 2011 at 3:33 PM

Jay very interesting and on point.