We Know Less Than We Think

Armchair Pundits

SG Buckley

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Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Friends are over for dinner. We talk about pollution and the future of food, and is it morally right to eat meat (we’re having steak). Ice cream is served and it’s onto politics, Ukraine and possible corruption in Ukraine.

Things get a little heated — everyone has such strong opinions — and someone says, “If we’re going to talk about corruption, let’s talk about Joe Biden.”

My friend lobs this casually, like a hand grenade across the table.

“Let’s not,” I say and clear the plates.

Later I’m thinking: How did we get here?

At what point did people believe reading the news made them experts on all current affairs? It’s good to have opinions but when did we become a nation of armchair pundits?

Was it by watching the McLaughlin Group with pundits shouting over each other, turning current affairs into sport? Or when news became like entertainment following the end of the Fairness Doctrine, a US policy requiring licensed broadcasters to share both sides of stories of vital public interest? Or maybe it was the rise of Facebook, or when newspapers let all readers comment — a move publishers must bitterly regret.

Or perhaps it’s all of these things, and the change has happened imperceptibly over time, leading us to become pontificating fools without even realizing it.

A lifetime ago, I was a reporter at a newspaper — back when people who thought I was an idiot said so via email or in a letter, not right below my story. Of course I knew my articles weren’t perfect. Reporters aren’t in the room where things happen.

We’re told about events later, largely by self-interested parties. Our job is to wind together bits of string — facts we believe to be true — to form a tight, but imperfect ball.

After my stories were published, I’d practically hold my breath, waiting for word to arrive that I’d missed something. As hard as I worked to get everything just right, I knew in my heart my stories were at best semblances of reality. I didn’t know absolutely everything. How could I?

I like to think readers understood this. I know conversations at dinner parties used to be less heated. There was a…

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SG Buckley

Writer, editor, parent. Former staffer at Quartz, WSJ and Inc. magazine.