OK, I'll admit to being somewhat surprised this morning when I logged in and discovered that J. Peter Freire, a focus of Sunday's New York Times article on punditry, had posted a comment in response to my entry last evening. When that alert popped up in my e-mail, my first thought was "hmmm...did he write because I thoroughly pissed him off?" I was pleased to find that wasn't the case at all so first off, thanks very much for reading yesterday's entry, Peter. I hope you found it worth your time and I appreciate the fact that you took a few minutes to post your thoughts.
I understand and agree with a number of the points he makes. However, from the perspective of an outsider (albeit one who has dealt with producers, reporters, and bookers as a company spokesperson and PR guy), I think that some of the distinctions he makes are lost, or worse, obscured by the shows and the networks. For many watchers, those distinctions might not exist at all anymore.
"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."
I think he strikes at the crux of it – the party flack is often given a comparable billing to a journalist or an expert witness, unless the flack is clearly ID'd as a representative for a campaign a la David Plouffe or the delightfully painful-to-watch Tucker Bounds and Nancy Pfotenhauer. The result is that the same weight is applied to the person paid to relate those talking points and spin as to someone whose focus is on providing feedback on the news through a (hopefully) informed opinion.
The lack of transparency with regard to who these people are, their expertise and qualifications, and their connections to the issue at hand all lead to a sense of cynicism and a sometimes not-so-vague unease that we're not hearing the truth. For example, in April, the New York Times exposed the close connections between the Pentagon, the White House, and many military experts who served as on-screen commentators presenting positive stories of the war in Iraq. Would viewers of these shows have been less likely to buy into this spin if they knew that the pundits were in bed with the Pentagon and the Bush Administration? You'd certainly think so!
The result is a blurring of the lines as to what's news, what's legitimate commentary, and what is spin, manipulation, or party rhetoric. It's a state exacerbated by the increasingly partisan evening news blocks, headlined by Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann where the reporting of "news" is in fact a heavily biased presentation of select details designed to provoke ire, angst, or pleasure, depending on where you fall on the ideological spectrum. It gets more confusing and more blurred when the pundits on these shows are viewed as doing much the same thing.
It's an unfortunate situation, especially for guests who do truly seek to educate and illuminate through informed opinion. Both the flack and the voice of experience are painted with the sweeping brush of "pundit" by the viewing public. When one is seen as presenting nothing but speaking points and spin, then a cynical viewing public will tend to discount all pundits that have not built up a reservoir of goodwill or the gravitas that NYT's Ashley Parker described in her article this past Sunday.
On the other hand, building up that goodwill overcomes what some might see as youth and inexperience. Christopher Beam of Slate.com is a good example - I enjoy reading his commentary on Slate. Do I care that he's only 23 or 24 or will I discount his appearance on a TV news program due to his age? Nope, because I've learned that he's a reliable resource who clearly gives thought to what he writes.
On the other hand, some guests on news programs are so partisan that it is very difficult for me to listen to them anymore (James Carville, for example). That partisanship and the strong feelings for and against that they engender are, of course, why these people get booked on TV news programs. It helps a show's ratings when there are fireworks to be seen (see: Novak, Robert). I'm not naive.
Cable TV news and its need for pundits are the journalistic equivalent of Major League Baseball and the lack of good pitching. While there may be the same number of outstanding pitchers now as there were 15, 20, or 30 years ago, they are far more thinly spread following the expansion of MLB to 30 teams. In response, teams have no choice but to fill starting and bullpen roles with mid-level pitchers who wouldn't have made the major league cut 15 or 20 years ago. In the same fashion, news programs are now relying on a broader, thinner, more compromised, and occasionally less capable stable of pundits to fill the ravenous hunger for 24 hour news coverage.
"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."
Sorry, Peter, but I don't think these networks and their expanding rosters of news and opinion shows are going anywhere. As a result, I think you'll get your money's worth from that training program. The market continues to look rosy for the TV pundit growth industry. Invest now and make sure your suit doesn't blend into the green screen.