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Saturday, June 6, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Media Beat

Landmarks Of Punditry And Tomfoolery

Creator Syndicate Inc.

Media Beat

The Times invites critiques of the performance of local and national media. Commentary and opinion on the media should be addressed to the Op-Ed Editor, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 464-2323.

TOO often we forget to pause and give credit to the pundits who hand down so much wisdom to the rest of us.

The chosen few - usually white men - supply hot air on every issue under the sun. If we could harness the wind these guys generate on the airwaves and in print, it might solve our nation's energy problems.

Here, then, are a few of the shining moments brought to us by the country's most highly touted political pundits:

ELECTION WISDOM

-- In October 1980, columnist George Will went on ABC "Nightline" to praise Ronald Reagan's "thoroughbred performance" in a crucial debate with incumbent President Jimmy Carter. But there was something Will didn't tell us viewers: He had helped coach Reagan for that debate - and had read Carter briefing materials stolen from the White House.

-- In 1987, acclaimed political analyst David Broder wrote columns about how George Bush was "too innocent" and "too nice" to enter into a tough campaign for president. The next year, Willie Horton ads and ACLU-bashing propelled Bush into the Oval Office.

-- Beginning in 1989, pundits hailed centrist Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder as the great black hope who could push Jesse Jackson to the margins. The Washington Post's Juan Williams praised Wilder as a "rebuke" to Jackson, calling the governor "arguably the most important black American politician of the 20th century." Boosted by such puffery, Wilder entered the '92 presidential race; he failed to survive the first primary. Four years earlier, Jackson had won 7 million Democratic votes, about 30 percent of all ballots cast.

PUBLIC HEALTH

-- In a 1979 Newsweek column, George Will denounced the movie "The China Syndrome" - which dramatized a nuclear reactor accident - as hysterical Hollywood propaganda. "Nuclear plants," Will scoffed, "like color-TV sets, give off minute amounts of radiation, but there is more cancer risk in sitting next to a smoker than next to a nuclear plant." Will's column was still on newsstands when the real-life Three Mile Island nuclear nightmare began.

-- In 1986, William F. Buckley proclaimed in a New York Times column: "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of

other homosexuals." Under fire for a plan reminiscent of Nazi Germany, Buckley later withdrew the suggestion because `"t proved socially intolerable."

RACIAL AWARENESS

-- "I know something of racists," columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote dramatically in 1989. "I was one." After the 1954 Supreme Court decision barring segregation in public schools, "To my regret it took the better part of 10 years for me to realize that racial discrimination is wrong, wrong, wrong." Admirable self-criticism? Not quite. Kilpatrick's admission was the preamble to a column decrying modern-day civil-rights marchers who "have only an abstract, theoretical interest in a color-blind Constitution."

-- On PBS's "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" in 1990, pundit Mark Shields argued that - unlike Ronald Reagan - George Bush was supportive of the interests of black people and civil rights. On National Public Radio the previous year, Cokie Roberts had referred matter-of-factly to "George Bush's pro-civil-rights record." Neither Shields nor Roberts mentioned that Bush had opposed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Not long after the two pundits had certified his civil-rights credentials, Bush began assailing key new civil rights legislation as a "quota bill."

HUMILITY

-- Some pundits are so brilliant they don't need to analyze something in order to render a judgment. On ABC's "This Week" program, Cokie Roberts denounced the movie "JFK" - sight unseen: "My father was a member of the Warren Commission . . . I will not see the movie. I do not see any point in going to see and paying money to a person who is discrediting a lot of very good men."

-- Perhaps these pundits are off the mark so often because they're too close to an establishment that's frequently disinforming them, and us. In a moment of candor, ABC's Sam Donaldson acknowledged: "I practice what most people in my profession practice . . . As a rule, we are, if not handmaidens of the establishment, at least blood brothers to the establishment . . . We end up the day usually having some version of what the White House . . . has suggested as a story."

The next time you hear someone praising the pundits who soak up so much air time and so much ink, you might mention that wisdom is in the eye of the beholder. If we don't think for ourselves, there are plenty of media "experts" ready to do it for us.

(Copyright, 1992, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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