Opinion Columns & Blogs

Charlie Harper: Punditry doesn't make policy

Nine years ago I created a fake name to make a joke on an obscure political blog. The next three years were fun. I made jokes -- often at the expense of others, gained a small cult following, and had a good bit of fun while talking about one of my favorite topics.

Eventually the inside joke had run its course and I decided to let people know who I was -- "nobody" -- and move on. As has become custom, it didn't work out that way. A little over a year later instead of moving on and back to my re-established professional life, I was made editor of the blog. With that title came another. I was proclaimed "The Peach Pundit."

In the early years I wanted to remain totally anonymous so I left few clues about who I was. It taught me how to argue. I couldn't rely on my degrees, experience, or other credentials to buttress my positions. Without realizing it, I gave myself three years of on-the-job training in written persuasion.

The almost six years since have also been an amazing journey. I've learned much more about the audience that we had cultivated, and who was paying attention. It caused me to get a bit more serious -- both with maturity and with purpose -- and try to figure out what to do with a platform I had accidentally stumbled upon.

Over this time, old and new media came quite a bit closer together. In the course of a given week I'll find my work on blogs, newspapers, radio, and television. Even much of that started because I could, not because I even wanted to or had a reason to.

The journey exposed me to a lot. There was much trial and error along the way. They were mostly inevitable given that there are no road maps for this kind of trip. And what a long, strange trip it's been.

Three years ago I needed to make a choice. Corporate changes at my day job told me I had to prepare to change jobs. If I stayed in the old industry I was likely to have a different schedule and learning curve that would require me to curtail if not eliminate my writing and political activities. If I decided to double down, there was no clear business model and even less certainty of acceptance. I have, after all, been quite critical of many current state leaders and some major influential institutions.

A bigger choice for the bigger picture also needed to be made. Blogging had changed. Old media's acceptance and relationship with us had changed. The people we routinely criticized went from pretending "nobody reads them" to actively trying to ensure we had the facts we needed to shape our opinions.

In short, it was clear we had the attention of those we covered and access to the public whose opinion we wanted to shape. The big question for me, and for anyone else in opinion media, is how do we want to use this platform.

Too many in the blogosphere, talk radio, and other forms of political media use their platforms to throw stones. It's pretty easy to stoke existing rage, point to complex issues that many don't understand, and galvanize a skeptical public against anyone who's actually trying to solve problems.

The bigger challenge is to work with those you don't agree with. Finding common ground and informing with facts is significantly harder than being critical without rolling up your own sleeves to first see all sides to an issue.

"Punditry" in its modern form requires only a platform and the ability to shout louder than anyone who may disagree. Good policy, however, is something that you do not win by filibuster. It requires persuasion. It requires consensus. And it requires working with those across a broad range of ideology.

The choice I made three years ago led me to become executive director of PolicyBEST, a policy think tank focused on solving real problems that I care about. We have plenty of issues that affect all Georgians, not just those from my corner of the political spectrum.

The choice I made this week is to give back my "pundit" title. I've moved on from my original blogging home and on to a new website. It is one where I hope we'll have a true battle of ideas, and eschew exercises in group think.

I'll still be around on these pages, and will continue to focus most of these columns on solutions. There are plenty of folks who like to cover the political horse races (and from time to time a bit of that will be covered here, too). But the need - and what I've found that I enjoy through this circuitous process - is elevation and discussion of critical issues. I hope you'll join me in the ongoing discussion at GeorgiaPol.com.

Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state & local politics of Georgia.