The Pundit Explosion
Journalists voice their opinions on current affairs on more than 30 television shows. Are these programs a pestilence or good clean fun?
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
New York Times Washington Editor Andrew Rosenthal has all the right credentials to join the Washington television punditocracy. He covered the Dukakis campaign, did a tour of duty at the Pentagon and spent three years writing for the Times from the White House.
He's attractive. He's glib. He's relatively young (39) but with enough experience to bring gravitas to the television scene. And he oversees the day-to-day Washington operations of the country's most prestigious paper.
Andy Rosenthal, if he wanted, could be a Washington celebrity.
So could well-respected Washington Post White House correspondent Ann Devroy, who's covered four presidents and uses her considerable reporting skills to break dozens of stories other journalists have to chase. So could James Fallows, the articulate Washington editor of the Atlantic Monthly.
But you won't find Rosenthal or Devroy or Fallows sitting in a makeup room having their faces dusted with powder minutes before joining the "Capital Gang" or "The McLaughlin Group" or another of the fast-multiplying shows featuring journalists. They avoid the pundit circuit.
"I'll get in trouble for this," Rosenthal says. "I think they are silly. They are just entertainment. The problem is that a lot of people watch them. They see a reporter for the New York Times come on there and they think they're going to get reporting. And they get opinion. I don't think that's particularly fair to viewers. These shows are so navel gazing and egotistical. All those people sitting around there just blowing gas out of the television tube. I find it very distasteful."
A growing number of journalists are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their brethren schmoozing like chums over the weekend television airwaves with politicians they cover during the week. They think the incendiary and theatrical nature of the so-called "shout shows" provoke otherwise reasonable journalists into saying outrageous things they'd never put in print. They don't like seeing colleagues shoot from the hip about topics they know little about.
Bottom line, they don't think these shows are good for journalism's waning credibility.
"I think the TV political talk shows are a pestilence," says arch critic Fallows. "Everything about them is bad for the business. Every one of them rewards traits that are directly at odds to what you are supposed to do as a reporter. They hammer home the idea the journalist as performer is more important than the topic."
And they pave the way to stardom for some print reporters.
Getting on a well-watched television punditry program as a talking head versed in Beltway arcana is a surefire way to boost a print reporter's visibility – and income.
Once you're asked to be on one of the numerous political chat shows originating in Washington, D.C. – and if you're good – you'll soon be hearing from a speaker's bureau.
Then you're on your way to the really big money: giving speeches to trade groups or corporations willing to shell out $5,000 to as much as $35,000 a pop (see "Take the Money and Talk," June).
And it's all because you are glib, outrageous, simplistic – but never too serious – on one of the growing number of shows where journalists, mostly white guys in ties, sit around gnawing on the week's news.
"People watch those shows for the entertainment value and the combat," says Time Managing Editor James R. Gaines. "The pitch of some of those shows has reached a point where I don't watch them any more because they don't fill me with pride for my craft."
Lighten up, say the people who appear on the shows and produce them.
"The programs are what they are," says Richard Davis, CNN's executive producer for many of the shows criticized. "These are simply journalists who work day in and out learning how this town works and providing analysis. People enjoy watching them."
In the last few years, political talk shows with prominent Washington print journalists discoursing – if not yelling – on political minutiae have grown exponentially. Thanks to the expanding world of cable television, there are at least 30 shows providing journalists with a chance to practice punditry on national TV.
It wasn't always this way. When Jimmy Carter was president in the late 1970s, Fallows wrote speeches for him. At that time, says Fallows, the only TV talkfest Carter had to worry about was "Agronsky & Company" with pioneer Martin Agronsky.
The nationally syndicated and widely watched "McLaughlin Group" – where four panelists and former Jesuit priest and master of pomposity John McLaughlin scream at each other for about eight minutes per topic in a wrestlemania style that's phenomenally popular – began in 1981. Before that groundbreaking show, Sunday morning viewers were fed stolidly reliable political programs that lacked the pyrotechnics of McLaughlin, such as NBC's "Meet the Press" and CBS' "Face the Nation," the latter first airing in 1954. On these shows, journalists ask newsmakers questions rather than answer them.
Then in 1980, Ted Turner's Cable News Network appeared on the scene and suddenly there was a huge amount of airtime to fill. In 1982, CNN created the high-decibel shout show "Crossfire." These days liberal journalist Michael Kinsley and either conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak or politico John Sununu, in a point-counterpoint half-hour shoot-out, blowtorch each other's position as "unconscionable."
"Capital Gang" joined the roster of shout shows in October 1988, with Novak and Mark Shields and then Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau Chief Al Hunt. Time's Margaret Carlson is now the fourth permanent panelist – the three others stayed. Unlike McLaughlin, newsmakers appear and the panelists grill them. It's now CNN's highest rated weekend show, says Davis, vice president and senior executive producer of CNN's eight Washington public affairs programs.
In April, Davis put together a Sunday late afternoon/evening lineup that's a news junkie's dream. For three hours, viewers can sate themselves on public affairs shows with journalists. Not to be outdone, CNBC (NBC's cable channel, which started in 1989) has added three shows that feature Washington politicians and journalists: "Equal Time" with Mary Matalin and Dee Dee Myers, "The Cal Thomas Show" and "Tim Russert," where the NBC Washington bureau chief talks one-on-one with an A-list journalist.
A year ago NBC created another cable channel, "America's Talking," a news and information talk network on which San Francisco Examiner Washington Bureau Chief Christopher Matthews is a mainstay.
ýnd then there's the granddaddy of punditry – PBS' "Washington Week in Review." Launched in 1967, the show kicks off the weekend with its live roundtable discussion on Friday night. "Washington Week" tries to distinguish itself from shout shows by using veteran print beat reporters who appear only when their beats are in the news. The tenor of "Washington Week" is somewhat more muted.
"Proliferation is a very accurate word," Novak says of the rapid growth of the shows in recent years. "But it's not like a proliferation of the daytime sleaze shows. Not all people may like it, but it is discussing public issues. Sometimes intelligently, often not intelligently. But at least we are talking about taxes, Bosnia and affirmative action and not 'I used to be a teenage vampire' or something."
Few Washington journalists would turn down a chance to be on "Washington Week" or one of the prestigious Sunday morning talk shows; in fact, some reporters lobby to join the roster of pundits. "Most of the people I know are trying to get on television more," Devroy says.
It's the producers and booking agents who get a firsthand glimpse of how hungry some journalists are for face time. "There's a certain cadre that call and sell themselves," says Collette Rhoney, producer of "Tim Russert" and "Meet the Press." "I stay very far away from them. There seems to be an emerging breed of political performers that are more interested in self-promotion."
Each show has a roster of regulars and semi-regulars. The pool is small and there's a lot of sharing among shows. "In a town where you have 1,000 journalists," says CNN's Davis, "you are talking about 40 or 50 people who like to do it and people who are good at it."
The result is you can see Novak and U.S. News & World Report's Steven V. Roberts and Gloria Borger and Time's Carlson and the Wall Street Journal's Hunt and the Washington Post's Juan Williams on any number of shows.
Roberts, for example, has appeared this year on "Washington Week in Review," "Late Edition," "Meet the Press," C-SPAN's "Washington Journal," "The Cal Thomas Show," "Equal Time" and "Tim Russert."
"It's a fair criticism to say the same journalists are on many different shows," says Andy Friendly, CNBC's executive producer for programming. "I'm always prodding my producers to bring new, interesting people."
Rhoney may be defining a new kind of journalist when she uses the term political performer. By that she means journalists who seem to invest more time trying to get on television and practicing their lines than they do on their craft.
To be invited on a show, reporters have to be witty and knowledgeable. But if they want a repeat performance they often have to offer outlandish views.
"If you are boring and dull and give out facts, you won't be invited back," says Brent Baker, executive director of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group that tapes many political talk shows to search for liberal bias. "You're supposed to be provocative."
And that worries NPR Editorial Director John Dinges. "I'm concerned about all these smart-ass quips you are expected to come out with that are often derogatory and put-downs of public officials," he says.
He could have been talking about Howard Fineman's soundbite on "Capital Gang Sunday," when he was asked about President Clinton's latest Bosnia remarks in June. "He doesn't sound like a world leader," quipped the Newsweek writer. "He sounds like a dentist."
Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas, a regular on "Inside Washington," admits he's made comments he later regrets. "About every six weeks, I'll say something stupid and wake up at four in the morning and regret it because you can't take it back," he says. One such occasion was when he dismissed Paula Corbin Jones, who accused President Clinton of sexual harassment, as a woman "with big hair coming out of the trailer parks."
Eric Alterman, who wrote "Sound & Fury," a book about the phenomenon, and others criticize shows such as McLaughlin and the Cap Gangs for being simplistic, for trying to reduce complex issues to soundbites. "The issues are very complicated and not suited to point-counterpoint," he says.
These shows are fast-paced, trying to cram three knotty topics into about 23 minutes. Often when one journalist asks a thoughtful question, there's no time for an adequate answer, or three people try to answer at once. On a June 3 "Capital Gang," panelist Margaret Carlson tried at least four times to complete a point, saying "and if " over and over until she sounded like a broken record.
"The tenor of the shows is screaming somebody into submission at a time when political debate in general is extremely polarized with few good faith efforts to find common ground," says Boston Globe Ombudsman Mark Jurkowitz.
Some criticize the panels' makeup – often four middle-aged white men and a woman, none of whom live a poverty line existence. To be sure, minorities do appear. "But these people on these shows are all sort of the same kind of people if you take away their politics," says Alterman. "They don't understand the problems most Americans face because they don't face anything like them."
Jurkowitz and Alterman go so far as to call the shows bad for American democracy. And, like critics Fallows, Rosenthal and Gaines, they are convinced the programs are bad for journalism.
Fallows, who first wrote critically about journalists' punditry and speaking fees in 1986, attacks the shows for rewarding reporters for the wrong reasons: highlighting personality rather than product, giving opinions rather than reporting, providing thumbs up and down predictions rather than thoughtful analysis.
"Confining myself to McLaughlin-like shows and Capital Gang-like shows, every single one of them, if it disappeared tomorrow, journalism would be better off," Fallows says. "The world would be better off. Government would be better off. The only people who would be worse off are the actual members of the show."
Rosenthal objects to the chumminess. On "Capital Gang," for instance, panelists usually address the newsmakers – often members of Congress they know – by first names. They throw out tidbits they have heard in private conversations with high-ranking officials.
It's the shows' suggestion "that we are all kind of..important figures in this together that I think is absurd and quite damaging..," Rosenthal says. "Also, if you are out there presenting your views on news issues you cover, it damages your credibility as a news reporter."
Some participants say the shows provide insights into major news stories while entertaining viewers; they do not pretend to be the definitive word on the issues of the day.
"People who watch CNN certainly don't view us as the voice of God," says Fineman, Newsweek's chief political correspondent. "They view us as a bunch of yakking, talking heads. They take from us whatever is useful and informing and they throw away the rest."
Fineman began his television career in 1982 with an appearance on "Washington Week in Review." He joined "Capital Gang Sunday" in April as a regular panelist. He says he's totally "unabashed" about liking the gig, which like most of the shows pays several hundred dollars per appearance. And yes, he says, years of face time has helped him get more speaking engagements.
As for charges that such shows are shallow, Fineman responds, "If it's boring and useless, no one will watch. As for the notion that it's shallow, obviously it is. But I'm lucky enough that this is an extracurricular thing for me."
Novak and Thomas say much of the criticism stems from jealousy. Says Novak, "The critical ones are the ones who aren't invited on." Adds Thomas, "One of the hilarious things is that some of the biggest critics of these shows would salivate to get on them."
CNN executive Davis points out that the pundit shows are not the sole vehicles on television to tell viewers about current events. "If you look at a newspaper, there are all different articles," he says. "These are just [some] of the many shows that give viewers information."
While it may seem that print reporters just get on the air and spout off, Newsday senior White House correspondent Susan Page says doing television is tough.
"The conventional view of these TV talk shows is they celebrate the glib and the sound bite and I think that's sometimes true," says Page, who appears on four of the programs. "But on the other hand, to do good TV requires an ability to speak very concisely and crisply and convey a lot of information in a very limited time."
Page acknowledges that the higher profile that comes with TV exposure helps her do her day job better. She says her appearances help her get phone calls returned.
"We don't read Newsday but we know Susan Page," says Media Research Center analyst Tim Graham. "We don't see the Dallas Morning News, but we know Susan Feeney. Being on these shows does make you a name or a face."
Some say that there's so much pressure on these familiar names and faces to perform well that they would never utter the dreaded words, "I don't know." But that's not always the case. When Bosnia came up on Saturday's Cap Gang on June 3, Al Hunt said, "I'm going to do something that probably will drive Robert Novak crazy. It's illegal to do on this show. I'm going to tell you I'm hopelessly confused and I don't know what kind of solution there is."
But lack of knowledge doesn't always inhibit a pundit from waxing eloquent. McLaughlin mainstay Fred Barnes, asked by the host whether he could speak "with authority" on silicon breast implants, replied, "I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority," according to Alterman's book on pundits.
Some see danger when a journalist makes authoritative pronouncements on everything. "I just think it's hard to maintain your reportorial credentials if you are often seen as a commentator," says ABC correspondent Jim Wooten.
Devroy also is uncomfortable crossing the line between reporting and opining, although she admits that "under coercion" she once appeared with ex-GOP political operative turned TV talkmeister Mary Matalin on "Equal Time." "I put myself in an awkward position," Devroy says, "if I cover something the Clinton administration did on Tuesday and then attack it or praise it on Friday."
CNBC's Friendly believes there's plenty of room for political talk shows on televison's crowded dial. "If you walk down 58th Street in Manhattan," he says, "you'll see 10 great world class restaurants often serving the same kind of fare. They all do terrific business. I think there's room for two or more political reactive, news-oriented programs at a time."
A bunch of great restaurants enhances dining opportunities, but a surfeit of shows where reporters tease or insult each other may not enhance journalism. If good journalism were the only consideration, Time's Gaines might ban his reporters from appearing on opinion shows, just as he recently banned them from giving speeches for money to trade groups or corporations. But Gaines also has to worry about economics.
Those TV appearances are a good marketing tool. Part of Time Public Affairs Director Robert Pondiscio's job is to get the magazine's reporters on television. When Carlson is on Cap Gang or Jay Carney is on "The McLaughlin Group" or Michael Duffy is on "Washington Week," their Time magazine affiliation appears on the screen. "It's good exposure for the magazine," Pondiscio says. "Getting our journalists on TV is part of the way magazines are marketed now."
In Newsweek promotional material offering 10 reasons why advertisers should buy space in Newsweek, reason #9 says, "TV news organizations turn to Newsweek for expertise," and then notes Eleanor Clift's appearances on McLaughlin and Jay Leno, Jonathan Alter on ABC's "Nightline" and MTV, Howard Fineman on PBS and Evan Thomas on CNN.
"For the newsweeklies, it is absolutely a benefit to have reporters on television," Gaines says. "That's the dilemma. It is absolutely a conflict for me. But all publications live or die on promotion. They live on promotions and credibility. In this case, the two seem at odds." ###