Sunday, October 26, 2008

It's growth industry – Punditry on Demand

One political article in particular caught my eye in today's Sunday New York Times though it was not to be found in the front section or Week in Review. Nope, it was in the Fashion & Style Section and no, it had nothing to do with Sarah Palin's wardrobe. Titled "At Pundit School, Learning to Smile and Interrupt", it opens:

J. Peter Freire is at school, learning to be a better pundit.

He is being trained to carve his conservative philosophy into bite-size nuggets — preferably ones that end with a zinger — and to avoid questions he doesn’t like. He is discovering the right way to attack opponents (with a smile) and to steer a conversation in his direction (by interrupting).

Journalists once had to achieve a certain gravitas before appearing on television as a political expert, but not anymore. Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, a riveting presidential election and the proliferation of cable channels, people like Mr. Freire, who is 26 and has been managing editor of The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, since January, are finding themselves in hot demand.

While the lack of experience on the part of many of these pundits calls into question just what they're doing on my TV set, what I found most fascinating in this article is the apparent acceptance of the concept of pundits as extensions of the campaign and a movement. It's the latest step in the continued transition of news from a theoretically objective venue to one with a veneer of objectivity and an overflow of rhetoric (except for FOX News, which crossed over into full propaganda mode years ago). Sadly, for those of us who follow all of the political coverage, it also means that we suffer through an unending, overwhelming cascade of pundits who generally add very little to the mix (see: "The Decabox" and "Who the F@*k is That Guy?" on The Daily Show if you need an example).

It all brings to mind another article, "Top Yeller", in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, that profiles Billy Mays, ubiquitous TV pitchman, and defines his appeal as "a celebrity endorser whose celebrity is based entirely on having endorsed things." Is it such a stretch to believe that many of the pundits spawning on our TV sets are nothing but the political equivalent, hawking political positioning instead of the WashMatik, the Ultimate Chopper, and OxiClean to bored TV watchers around the country?

However, in these tough economic times, it is nice to know that if you're out of a job because your advice led to your candidate getting crushed in the polls, you can always pony up $75 for a basic lecture on how to be an effective pundit. If you do, God knows someone will pay you to be on TV.

1 comment:

J. Peter Freire said...

I wonder what you thought about the commercial viability of networks. Obviously the ideal is for more shows to be like the Newshour with Jim Lehrer. Daytime cable news *is* a lesser form, but the reason it exists is because there's no market for long-winded news discussion during daytime.

Add to that this component: Forget that the commentators are young and inexperienced. The bookers for the networks are young and inexperienced. Worse, they're desperate.

This is on account of senior producers and hosts who aren't quite certain at the beginning of the day what stories they're going to cover. And worse? Lots of the experts are awful on television. They stutter, have flopsweat. It's a nightmare.

So, can you really blame the bookers for finding people who can do a decent enough job and talk with some level of cogency about the issues of the day?

Here's what gets my goat. I'm a journalist, though I do engage in opinionmaking while also reporting. I'm frequently put on television alongside a party operative who can go on straight talking points. I cannot endorse a candidate, nor would I want to because I'm not interested in partisanship. But the other guy, he has no problem doing it.

So I'm already stuck. If I raise points against him, he'll go back to talking points. Worse, they'll call him a news analyst, when he's done work for the party.

As for the gravitas argument, that'll probably get fixed as soon as networks don't need to have a new guest every 5 minutes. And as soon as there are fewer networks. And as soon as the bookers are older.

I really understand and sympathize with the argument. I don't watch much daytime news on account of this. But lots of people do, and that's the point.