The Quote Machines
They’re everywhere, a handful of scholars and pundits with an opinion for every reporter’s phone call. Is there anything wrong with turning again and again to the usual suspects, or should journalists try harder to diversify the expert pool?
By Mark Francis Cohen
Mark Francis Cohen, whose work has appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Times, is a contributing editor at Washingtonian magazine.
Larry J. Sabato, who bills himself on the paid speaking circuit as "probably the most quoted college professor in the land," recently donated $1 million to the University of Virginia.
That sum of money--estimated to be 12 to 13 times the scholar's annual salary--makes Sabato, 52, the most generous faculty member the university has ever employed. Actually, it's one of the biggest gifts an active professor has handed to a school anywhere.
So where did Sabato get all this cash? "Thank goodness for compound interest," the mustachioed pundit told the Washington Post the day his gift was announced. "It's amazing what you can live on eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese for dinner."
Still, a prudent lifestyle and savvy investment decisions hardly explain Sabato's beneficence. The scholar has amassed mounds of extra cash writing 23 books and moonlighting as a public speaker. He's a successful pundit whose words and face blanket the newspapers and airwaves, appearances that boost his profile and his cachet on the speaking circuit.
Commentators like Sabato who speak frequently to reporters have earned a reputation as easy quotes or dial-a-quotes. Harried reporters on deadline can phone these scholars at any time to get a quick and pithy comment on a remarkable range of subjects, from missile defense to the Mississippi Delta. And in an age in which government officials often speak anonymously or on background, reporters depend on analysts with real names to provide information--even if they don't always have much of substance to contribute.
But many editors and some reporters, suffering from quote fatigue, say overuse of these scholars has created something of a permanent commentariat. Such a "punditocracy," as The Nation's Eric Alterman has called it, is thought to dispense a numbing conventional wisdom, as more obscure analysts who offer fresh insight or bring greater expertise to a particular topic are neglected. Critics argue journalists should work harder to plumb opinions from a vast expanse of sources.
"If there's some name that keeps coming up and getting in stories, I'll try to urge reporters to get other sources," says Michael Abramowitz, national editor at the Washington Post. "Reporters should always be trying to challenge their assumptions about things. If we're talking to the same people all the time, we're not challenging our assumptions."
Some news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press have officially and unofficially blacklisted certain ubiquitous analysts over the years, banning reporters from using them in articles.
While official bans are less common, it has become routine for individual editors, say on a national desk, to forbid reporters from using certain pundits as sources. Many editors interviewed for this article would only admit such prohibitions anonymously. "I have told my reporters not to use Larry Sabato anymore," says the editor of a publication that covers Congress. Besides Sabato, the mainstays of this likely-to-be-banned list include Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, Stephen Hess and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report and John Pike of Globalsecurity.org.
A sign of their quote-giving prowess: From September through March, Ornstein garnered 95 mentions in U.S. newspapers, while the others received 127, 49, 89, 93 and 67 mentions, respectively, according to a Lexis-Nexis search.
Jeffrey Birnbaum, a Washington Post columnist who has worked at Fortune magazine and the Wall Street Journal, says using a myriad of sources "adds to the credibility of what you write." He explains: "It can be lazy to use the same people over and over. It appears the reporter lacks imagination."
Much of the reliance on established quotemeisters stems from deadline reporting. When time is tight, when a deadline is looming, reporters have to home in on the pundits they know will be accessible and will answer questions quickly and articulately.
Says Susan Page, USA Today's Washington bureau chief: "When I have time, I'll put a request out on Profnet," a Web site that connects reporters with academic experts. "Sometimes, though, you'll get an assignment at 4 and have to turn it in by 7, and you need someone who you know will call you back."
Hess, Sabato, Ornstein and Pike are known for their quick responses. These experts also give reporters their home phone numbers and respond to requests late into the evening.
Reporters also depend on pundits when they don't have high-ranking government sources. "When you can't get someone from the White House to return your calls, you call the Heritage Foundation," says Anna Badkhen, a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, referring to the conservative think tank. Badkhen writes about international politics and often includes analysts in her stories. "The Heritage Foundation has a perspective that's close to the White House."
Besides, the opinionmongers who dominate reporters' Rolodexes offer crisp and entertaining commentary, perfect for plugging into a news story. "It's not that these people are simply quote whores," says William Powers, a National Journal columnist who writes about the media. "Most academics are used to giving long, tortured answers to a question that work in the academic world but don't work for a quotation. A lot of experts get called but never get used because they're boring and dull."
It's easy to see why Marshall Wittmann was once one of the hottest quote-givers in Washington. He speaks succinctly. He laughs readily. He dishes similes and metaphors freely and makes exotic analogies, even when he's explaining why only a handful of commentators are popular among journalists. "There's no Better Business Bureau for quotemeisters," says Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council and a former GOP operative. "It's a self-validating process. These people have been quoted so often that they've become the high priests of observerdom."
He says skilled commentators know intuitively what a reporter is looking for and can give it to them a few minutes into the interview. "Reporters want someone who will say something interesting," Wittmann says. "Reporters don't want something wonky. They want something that encapsulates the point they are trying to make."
Wittmann is still quoted, but for a couple of years, he had reached a star status only a few commentators achieve. In 2001, Wittmann, then a scholar at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, was a major media figure. He had worked for years in Republican politics, including stints in the first Bush administration, at the Christian Coalition and the Heritage Foundation. Wittmann supported U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2000 Republican primaries and became an outsider after George W. Bush won the nomination and the presidency.
What made Wittmann, a Waco, Texas, native, a media darling was his willingness to bash members of his own political tribe. When U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont quit the GOP and became an independent, dozens of media outlets looked to Wittmann for comment, and he obligingly hurled verbal bombs all over the place. As he told the Financial Times: "Not only is the president's honeymoon over, he now has a divorce on his hands." The New Yorker dubbed him "the King of Quotes" in a June 2001 profile piece, describing his appearance in a breathtaking number of publications. The magazine found that "readers of the New York Times were particularly blessed: four separate Marshall Wittmann quotes in four different stories in a single weekend."
Soon after this scrum of attention, though, Wittmann left the Hudson Institute and became an aide to McCain--a period during which he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters. "For two years, I went cold turkey," Wittmann says. "Life went on. When my name stopped appearing in the paper, it wasn't a personal crisis."
Even so, Wittmann concedes there's something intoxicating about being a go-to guy for reporters. "The truth is, it's flattering, because everybody likes to see their name in the paper," he says.
Reporters call on pundits like Wittmann for many stories because administration officials refuse to speak on the record, a practice that has become more frequent during George W. Bush's presidency (see "In Control," February/ March). At the same time, there's been a drastic increase in analysis pieces. "Curtain raisers," such as stories previewing Bush's State of the Union address in February, require reporters to lean on outside observers to make points that are highly speculative--and quite possibly incorrect.
With the rise of 24/7 cable news, reporters--particularly in print--began writing more analysis pieces and increasingly sought the views of experts, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism and an oft-quoted media critic in articles such as this one. "It wasn't Larry Sabato out there who called reporters up and said, 'Let me tell you this.' It was the reporters who called him."
The Chronicle's Badkhen says she quoted Sabato in January about the Iraqi elections because she knew he had a particular perspective. "He had strong opinions that echoed a point I was trying to make," she says. "I'm a reporter, not an editorial writer. Every point I make has to be backed up by analysts."
Ornstein finds reporters write pre-baked analysis stories more frequently than in the past. "There are lots of reporters who call you because they have something specific they want you to say," he says. "I get a lot of that now. They want you to say something, and they get unhappy when you don't."
Tired of seeing Norman Ornstein's name again and again, in story after story, Los Angeles Times editors put a stop to it, prohibiting reporters from quoting him on subjects on which he wasn't an expert. The edict, instituted in the early 1990s, was jokingly referred to as the "No Norm! Rule," says Doyle McManus, the Times' Washington bureau chief. "People would come into the office and say, 'Can I really not quote him?' It worked, though. It required the reporter to make that extra step."
Ornstein says he's been banned lots of times. (And he's been spoofed: The now-defunct Spy magazine once included a quote from Ornstein in every story in one issue.) "Reporters will tell me they can't quote me anymore," he says. "It's foolish. You get editors who say, 'Stop using this person. We're quoting him too much,' and the reporters will go out and find somebody else and quote them a lot until the editor says something again."
In fact, the L.A. Times' edict on Ornstein didn't last, and he has appeared in the newspaper numerous times since the rule was eased. Last year, his comments graced eight stories, including one about Teresa Heinz Kerry's tax returns.
Editors argue that bans are imposed because reporters should be digging up the "new," which includes unearthing new commentators. But does snagging a new commentator necessarily change the result? Or is it really a game of musical chairs, where the quotes are pretty much the same, and only the names change?
Editors insist that going to alternative commentators makes a difference. This year Don Frederick, national political editor at the Los Angeles Times, had a researcher assemble a list of more obscure sources for his reporters. Frederick wanted his writers to get fresh perspectives. "Sometimes you have to push your folks," he says. "We're trying to guard against being lazy in the reporting."
Jerry Seib, the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau chief, echoes that. "You have to be careful about using the same people over and over," he says. "The overuse of some people is a sign of not casting a wide enough net generally."
But National Journal's Powers doesn't see anything wrong with using commentators frequently and says absolute bans are simply ridiculous. "Yes, we all get tired of seeing the same names," he says. "But you're telling reporters to avoid talking to the people who have emerged as the most authoritative experts on a subject."
Or maybe journalists just need to avoid the quotemeisters until they get new jobs. Stephen Hess recalls how excited one Associated Press reporter became after the Brookings scholar began teaching at George Washington University: "He said, 'Oh great, I can quote you as a GW professor, and I don't have to use Brookings. My editors will like that.' "
While Sabato may be one of the most likely pundits to find himself on a do-not-call list, the number of times he's been quoted has actually increased during the last four presidential election cycles. A Lexis-Nexis search of the month of October during those election years shows Sabato was quoted 78 times in 1992; 122 times in 1996; 179 in 2000 and 344 times in 2004.
But Sabato sympathizes with editors who ban him. "You know reporters; they have a deadline, and they want somebody who will call them back relatively quickly," he says. "Once reporters find somebody who will regularly call them back, using them can become a habit. Editors have to break them of that habit."
Despite their reliance on pundits, reporters are developing a curious disdain for them. In fact, the term "pundit" has become a pejorative. Such aversion was evident in a 1996 New Republic article in which Sabato and other academics were made to look like hacks for speaking to the press. Author Franklin Foer analyzed Sabato's comments during September of that year and was astounded by the menu of subjects the U.Va. professor had addressed. "His ambit includes Perot's exclusion from the debates, Clinton's policy toward Iraq, Whitewater, Dole's attitude toward pot-smoking, Dick Morris, negative ads, the continued relevance of political parties," Foer marveled. In other words, Sabato, a political scientist, had the gall to talk to reporters over the course of a month about a month's worth of political topics.
"For goodness sake, I'm an academic helping reporters out," says Sabato, who initially declined to answer questions for this article because he thought it was going to be critical of heavily quoted sources. "Returning reporters' phone calls is something I do on top of my real work. I will return a call from a freshman student before I call a reporter. That's the way I run my life."
It's a love-hate relationship that journalists have with the Larry Sabatos of the world. Reporters call these sources repeatedly for their informed and colorful commentary. But once "sources" are quoted often enough to become "pundits," journalists think of them as self-serving P.R. reps on the make. As it happens, many commentators are experts in their field with top-drawer credentials, years of experience and incisive minds. Sabato, for instance, who was a Rhodes Scholar, directs U.Va.'s Center for Politics; he's engaged in 30 years of research and taught more than 14,000 students.
That's not to say getting quoted doesn't enhance an expert's credentials. Ornstein, the dean of easy quotes, found appearing in print was a boon to his career. It also started a chain reaction, with the first quote in one newspaper story leading to calls from other reporters and so on. "When I was starting out, when I wasn't well-known, it gave me credibility and gave me entree to members of Congress," he says.
Nevertheless, Ornstein says getting calls from reporters has grown less pleasurable in recent years. "Sometimes it's a pain in the ass," he says. "Sometimes a reporter will get you on the phone and keep talking and keep asking things, and I don't want to be rude. But I have other things to do."
Universities, think tanks and other research organizations clearly see a benefit to having their scholars quoted in newspapers or on TV. The publicity arms of such places aggressively pursue media interest in their experts. "It's amazing the number of universities that send me sources," the L.A. Times' Frederick says. A number of organizations, including the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution, have built television studios in their offices to make it easier for their experts to appear on air.
For journalism, though, the issue may not be access to more quotable sources so much as it is a growing reliance on commentators to fill speculative pieces. Consider coverage of the Iraqi elections. On the day the voting took place, the Chronicle's Anna Badkhen produced an article exploring how the elections would affect Bush's ability to govern during his second term. Newspapers across the country ran similar stories that day.
Badkhen quoted Sabato, who said: "Bush's second term could easily disappear into a black hole akin to Vietnam... When you're involved in an unpopular foreign war, you can only do so much. Ask Lyndon Johnson."
Tom Raum, an Associated Press reporter, wrote a comparable story a few days earlier. In it he cited a less-popular pundit, Stephen J. Cimbala, a Penn State University political science professor who has "studied the effect of the Iraq war on domestic politics," Raum wrote. But Cimbala's contribution to Raum's story was remarkably similar to Sabato's quote: "And as 2008 approaches, the Iraqis will pretty much have to be in charge of their own political destiny, otherwise you're going to hear the word quagmire more and more," Cimbala was quoted as saying.
Sure it's nice to hear a different voice, but finding another expert might not solve the root of a journalistic problem. While many analysis pieces can be valuable, others don't necessarily add much understanding to the day's news.
"There's too much mindless analysis out there," Tom Rosenstiel says. "What happened to fact-based reporting? We need stories that verify and synthesize what is the truth. That is certainly more important than one more story filled with conjecture."
Even if it doesn't quote Larry J. Sabato. ###