Getting Paid For Getting It Wrong 

Bad brokers get fired, bad pundits get hired

NEW YORK--"Past performance is no guarantee of future returns," investment firms warn their clients. Be that as it may, no standard disclaimer can shield stockbrokers from accountability for lousy advice. Those who earn a reputation for picking good stocks become wealthy. Those whose counsel consistently costs their customers money get fired. On Wall Street, hard work and a little luck pay off.

It's the same for other professional prognosticators. Doctors who misdiagnose, lawyers who file doomed lawsuits and film directors who go over budget suffer opprobrium, damaged reputations and--ultimately--diminished incomes. Even our political leaders, who enjoy access to up-to-the-minute assessments by high-tech intelligence agencies and are thus presumed to know what they're doing, are expected to foretell the consequences of their actions. Six months before invading Iraq, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld assured us that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

"I doubt it will last six months," he predicted when the war began. Rumsfeld, always wrong wrong wrong, got fired. Political pundits are the exception to the rule that applies to everyone else--the more they're wrong, the more they're paid.

Millions of people turn to America's top syndicated newspaper columnists and broadcast talk show hosts to place the day's events into context and to get a sense of what will happen on the national and international political scene in years to come.

All this inside-the-Beltway chatter is serious business. The prognoses of opinion mongers influence policymakers and investors whose decisions determine whether economies rise or fall; their take on foreign policy can drive Congress to war or pressure a president to make peace. Had Rush Limbaugh opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, to cite one example, there's a substantial chance that 600,000 Iraqis and Americans would not be dead today.

Unlike stockbrokers and doctors and lawyers, however, no one holds pundits accountable for their predictions. In opposition to logic and the tenets of capitalism, editorialists who repeatedly get it wrong prosper nevertheless. The biggest morons in print and on the air are hired for increasingly prestigious and lucrative gigs on radio and TV, invited to give $10,000-an-hour talks, and showered with awards and six-figure book deals. Strange but true: repeatedly screwing up is a prerequisite for making the bestsellers list.

During the run-up to the Iraq war, syndicated columnist Ann Coulter repeatedly parroted Bush Administration talking points that will go down in history for their depraved falseness and brazen illogic. "As George Bush pointed out in his State of the Union address," she wrote on January 31, 2003, "dictators are not in the habit of 'politely putting us on notice before they strike.'" By the time a threat is 'imminent,' Chicago will be gone."

Everyone, including Bush, now admits that Saddam never possessed or tried to develop nuclear weapons. Given the information available at the time, however, Coulter ought to have known that Chicago--and the rest of the United States--had never been endangered by Iraq. The reason: Saddam's missiles had a maximum range of a few hundred miles.

If she knew that fact, she lied. If she didn't, she should have looked it up. Whether she was dishonest or lazy, neither conclusion speaks well of her skills as a pundit.

On May 27, 2004, Coulter claimed on Fox News: "We have found weapons of mass destruction. That is something the media is repeatedly lying about. We have not found stockpiles. We found the plants for manufacturing, we found the experiments, we found the room for human experimentation labs. We found lots of weapons of mass destruction." In the same interview, she said "it's pretty darn safe over there [in Iraq]." Obviously, none of this was true.

Yet Coulter continues to cash in. All five of her books, thanks to heavy promotional campaigns by Random House and mass buys by right-wing organizations, have been best-sellers. She continues to be asked about, and paid for, her opinions on Fox News and MSNBC. She's so powerful and influential that liberal authors have published three new books attacking her--none of which stands a chance of matching her sales.

New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman is more proof that, for pundits, being wrong pays off. When U.N. illegal arms inspectors went to Iraq in 1997, Friedman shrieked that "Saddam is up to something serious this time."

As subsequent events have proven, Saddam wasn't up to anything. He had destroyed his chemical and biological weapons at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, as the U.S. had demanded. Nevertheless, Friedman went on, "it cannot be just to obliterate those sites where he [Saddam] is still hiding weapons--although that's important. The U.S. has to try to destroy him too. Because the worst of all worlds would be if we destroy his weapons but he survives and throws out the UN inspectors. He would then be able to rearm without anyone watching Iraq. And he will try to rearm."

In 2003, a week before the invasion, Friedman was giddy that his war lust was about to be sated: "I deeply identify with the president's vision of ending Saddam Hussein's tyranny and building a more decent, progressive Iraq. If done right, it could be so important to the future of the Arab-Muslim world, which is why I won't give up on this war."

As if Friedman's support for the attack wasn't morally and tactically heinous enough, he posited a ludicrous supposition: that the Bush Administration, which had already botched the occupation of Afghanistan, could have "done" Iraq "right." Friedman continued to pimp the war in column after column, pausing occasionally to bemoan what he described as the faulty execution of a noble idea.

Now it's obvious that the war itself, rather than the plan for a subsequent occupation, was intrinsically flawed. But it was Friedman's job to see and convey that before the tragic waste of thousands of lives and billions of dollars--carnage that his work helped promote and prolong.

Despite his dismal performance, Friedman's star still rises. His job at the Times secure, he recently collected an Overseas Press Award and was named to the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. His latest book, the turgid pro-free trade screed The World is Flat, has been on the New York Times Best Seller List nearly two years. Among its many laughable errors is its central premise that Christopher Columbus set out for the New World in order to disprove the idea that the world is flat. It has sold over two million copies; assuming a standard royalty rate of 8 percent and $30 cover price, he has received at least $4 million for this title alone.

Some pundits' predictions prove prescient. On March 13, 2003, MIT linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky warned against invading Iraq. "The consequences," he wrote in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "could be catastrophic in Iraq and around the world. "The United States may reap a whirlwind of terrorist retaliation--and step up the possibility of nuclear Armageddon." Terrorist attacks against Americans have become an hourly occurrence in Iraq; North Korea's dangerous nuclear brinksmanship resulted from Kim Jung Il's fears that he would be targeted for "regime change." Conceding that "Saddam remains a terrible threat to those within his reach," Chomsky continued by correctly assessing where Coulter and Friedman failed: "Today, his reach does not extend beyond his own domains."

Chomsky's analyses are consistently literate, humane and, more often than not, dead on target. So where does his latest book Failed States appear on the bestsellers list? It doesn't. Seven months after publication, it's the 1856th bestselling title on Amazon.

Maybe he should look for a job on Wall Street.

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