Getting it wrong: How pundits are rewarded for wild predictions

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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On Fox News this past Monday, Bill Kristol predicted Mitt Romney would announce his vice presidential nominee Thursday afternoon (which happens to be yesterday) or possibly today.

Kristol’s prediction spawned a ton of news coverage and Twitter buzz, but now seems unlikely.

This wasn’t the first time a Kristol prediction rocked the political world. Four years ago, I was shocked out of vacation mode in order to write about Kristol’s August prediction (on Fox News) that Colin Powell would endorse Barack Obama, and “may well give a speech at the Democratic convention.” Powell, of course, did endorse Obama, months later. He did not speak at the convention. Nevertheless, for a day or two in the summer of 2008, Kristol’s comments were the talk of the town.

He’s not alone. This year has been full of predictions. Often, of course, they are couched in weasel words and qualifiers. But that doesn’t stop them from dominating a news cycle, garnering publicity (and page views) for the predictor. Take for example this line from a Jeff Zeleny New York Times article: “Mr. Romney has reached a decision, his friends believe, and he may disclose it as soon as this week.” (Zeleny’s July 15 speculation sparked a firestorm of attention and commentary.)

But let’s not exclusively pick on Kristol or Zeleny. There are plenty of examples of ink being prematurely spilled. Last year, George Will proudly declared the next president will either be Obama, Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels. (Mr. Will still has a reasonable chance to salvage that one — but isn’t there at least a chance Mitt Romney wins?)

The fundamental problem is that there seems to be a great incentive to make bold or wild predictions, yet minimal consequence for getting it wrong.

We all need stuff to write about — we crave content and conversation — and so, when someone makes a wild prediction, they have, in a sense, done us a favor. What is more, once we link to — or Tweet — their prediction, we are invested. At this point, we have little incentive to later point out they were in error. Let’s be honest, we are always looking forward — looking for the next story — and so, the past is water under the bridge. Nobody revokes your pundit card.

This is not to say that ambition or bad motives drives all bad predictions. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes campaigns intentionally leak juicy, but bogus, stories in order to change the subject. And as Politico’s Dave Catanese learned, even if unimpeachable sources sometimes the principals change their minds, thus burning both reliable sources and reporters, alike.

Still, I fear we are entering into the “boy who cried wolf” phase (if we’re not there already.) What — aside from personal and professional ethics — is stopping me from writing today that “a source close to the Romney camp” told me Marco Rubio will be named Romney’s running mate this weekend? (After all, they are doing a joint bus tour, and my source tells me Romney is convinced he must make a play for Florida…)

It would be overwrought to say that in today’s punditry world, the worst get to the top, but I do fear we have created an environment that encourages wild speculation. As in economics, wild speculation often leads to bursting bubbles.

Matt K. Lewis