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Every hour, every day, every opinion: The nonstop parade of cable news pundits

  • Author: Paul Farhi, The Washington Post
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published June 4, 2016

Today is Wednesday, the day after Donald Trump's big victory in the New York primary, so today, pundits, our Narrative is "Trump: He's wrapped up the Republican nomination, right?" So that's what we'll talk about today, all day. Because we're TV pundits and we stick to the Narrative.

Ready, pundits? Go, ninjas, go:

Scottie Nell Hughes, 'Trump Supporter,' on CNN: "You have a sitting senator in Texas, a sitting governor in Ohio that cannot even get 50 percent of their own state to support them. [Trump] has proven time and time again that he can win in every part of this country."

Sarah Isgur Flores, former Carly Fiorina campaign manager, MSNBC guest: "Donald Trump wants to claim that being on the five-yard line is a touchdown. I think everyone believes Ted Cruz can shift the momentum on the second ballot [at the GOP convention]."

Meghan McCain, Fox News contributor: "Trump's negatives will filter down into Senate races, congressional races and local races. And I worry about it being like Goldwater, like an unmitigated bloodbath, where [Republicans] lose everything."

David Gregory, CNN analyst: "Cruz has got to do something that he did in Wisconsin, expand his base of support. … He's got to go to other states in the West, including Indiana and the Midwest, to show that he can reach beyond that core strength of evangelical Christians."

Thank you, pundits. To summarize: Trump – he's up! He's down! He's neither up nor down!

In other words, it's just another day in Punditstan, the land of gleaming teeth, flowing hair and hot takes. Throughout the day and long into the morrow, the pundits will work diligently to replenish America's strategic opinion reserves – with regular breaks, of course, for ads for retractable hoses, cholesterol medication and nonstick cooking pans.

These days, the people of Punditstan are a critical part of the cable news-industrial complex. The leading news networks – CNN, Fox News, MSNBC – don't report the news as much as they talk and speculate endlessly about it. For at least the past year, as well as for the next five months, the only thing they're talking about is the presidential campaign, a story perfectly tailored for 24-hour cable with its built-in conflict, historic importance and, yes, ever-changing "narratives" (plus, who in America doesn't have something to say about Trump and Clinton?). That means just one thing: Right now, we're at peak punditry.

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Never mind that all the gasbagging may be contributing to an overheated political climate (Jon Stewart once famously said that cable's partisan food fights were "hurting America"). After the campaign started and the pundits started yakking, ratings for all three cable networks, once in seemingly terminal decline, rebounded to nearly Iraq War levels. There are now so many cable pundits – CNN has about 100 on its payroll, while MSNBC and Fox News declined to provide numbers – that it's hard to tell them apart.

Some pundits are "contributors." Some are "analysts." Still others are "commentators" or "strategists."

The secret pundit decoder works like this: A "contributor" (such as Meghan McCain) is an exclusive network hireling who gets paid for his or her sound bites. He or she earns a fee for each appearance or a flat amount for being on call, like a firefighter, whenever his or her services are required. The amounts can range from about $150 per "hit" to the mid-six figures for a marquee name such as Karl Rove or David Axelrod, both former campaign savants and presidential advisers. An "analyst" (such as CNN's David Gergen or David Gregory, the former host of "Meet the Press") is a salaried or contract employee who is expected to analyze the day's Narrative rather than opine about it like a contributor. A "strategist" is usually a part-timer and a partisan hired for his or her political experience and insight.

Not that these rules really matter. Analysts contribute opinions, contributors analyze and strategists do both.

Then there are "guests," Punditstan's temporary-worker class. Guests typically aren't paid, and often aren't even identified as guests. Guests are free to peddle their thoughts to whichever network will have them (full disclosure: I've been an occasional guest on cable, just like everyone in Washington who has ever had a byline). The ever-itinerant nature of this class of talking heads explains why you're likely to see vaguely familiar faces such as political scientist Larry Sabato or think-tank wise man Norman J. Ornstein on MSNBC one day and on CNN the next.

CNN has pioneered another variation on the theme during this election season: the "supporter." Last year, it hired two commentators to defend Trump, Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany (Scottie Nell Hughes, another Trump supporter, is a frequent CNN guest). It has also had a Bernie Sanders booster (Jonathan Tasini), one for Ted Cruz (Amanda Carpenter), one for Jeb Bush (Ana Navarro) and multiple ones for Hillary Clinton. Poor John Kasich; no one on CNN was paid to spin for him.

The taxonomy of punditry can be further subdivided by background and personality. There are former campaign operatives and party hacks (Nicolle Wallace and Rick Tyler on MSNBC, Paul Begala and Donna Brazile on CNN, Rove on Fox News), lifelong journalists (The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson on MSNBC) and even a lapsed politician or two (Michael Steele and Joe Scarborough on MSNBC). Yes, there's a certain credentialism at work; the average dentist or truck driver, no matter how brilliant or witty his or her opinions, has no chance of ever moving to Punditstan. And there are, of course, degrees of temperament and vehemence: A rigorously nonpartisan analyst such as CNN's Gloria Borger rarely throws bombs while others (think Fox News's Andrea Tantaros) have crafted a career out of lobbing them.

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Pundits surely provide much that enriches our national political conversation. But there's that other stuff, too. With so much blather filling the air, some of the conversation inevitably gets kind of dumb. There was, for example, that remarkable moment on CNN in March when one panelist, Boston Herald columnist Adriana Cohen, accused another, Amanda Carpenter, of having an affair with Cruz.

Or that time on Fox Business Network in February when Trump supporter Omarosa Manigault argued with Fox News contributor Tamara Holder over the mispronunciation of their first names, their views of Trump, and some other things:

"It's the same difference, boo," Manigault said after Holder corrected her about how she says her first name. "You want to come on with big boobs, then you deal with the pronunciation of your name. Look, Donald Trump stands firm on what his position is about us going into Iraq … "

"Wait a second!" moderator Maria Bartiromo interjected. "Why are you bringing up Tamara's boobs? I don't understand why you brought up Tamara's boobs."

Yeah, said Holder: "How does who you support have to do with the size of my boobs?"

Manigault eventually apologized, saying she should have called Holder a "boob."

Another extreme of political punditry belongs to Ann Coulter. During her many years on TV, Coulter, 54, has trafficked in provocation and outrage, pointedly from a conservative perspective. Coulter, in fact, has raised the fire-breathing brand of off-the-cuff commentary to a kind of performance art. In hundreds of TV appearances, she has said many things that might be considered harsh and a number that might be considered downright awful ("I have never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much," she once wrote of a group of women left widowed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, before going on the "Today" show to defend the comment). TV producers find this irresistible, of course. They invite Coulter back year after year, providing a massive promotional platform for her books and columns.

Coulter expresses just one regret about her years in punditry. Early on, when she was a little-known lawyer, she was asked by CNN to comment about the possible successors to retiring Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Coulter thought the most obvious choice was Clarence Thomas, who was later confirmed, but she held her tongue after an older, seemingly wiser guest rattled off a list of candidates that didn't include Thomas. "I learned [then] that most people on TV are idiots and never to be swayed out of saying something I think is true, even if everyone else on the panel disagreed with me."

If anything, Coulter says, her TV persona is a milder version of her real self. "I'm bold and shocking when I talk to my friends, too," she says. "So [on TV] it's not exactly a performance, though I hope it is entertaining as well as edifying."

Coulter's adventures in punditry are unusual not just for their excesses, but for their length. A pundit's time in the spotlight is roughly as long as a professional athlete's – a few good years, maybe even a decade's worth of them, and then you're essentially out of the league. As in sports, there's always a hungry kid with a more provocative take (and better-looking to boot) eyeing your place in the lineup. Check out the transcripts of cable panel shows from 20 or even 10 years ago and you'll find serious churn. Where have you gone, Dee Dee Myers and J.C. Watts?

Rare is the elder pundit-statesman such as Eleanor Clift, who has been slinging liberal-leaning opinions on TV since the Carter administration, most visibly as a panelist on "The McLaughlin Group" for almost 30 years. If there were a Mount Rushmore of punditry, Clift, 75, would be up there alongside the likes of Al Hunt, Clarence Page, Pat Buchanan and the blustery McLaughlin himself.

Clift is a seminal character in the development of the pundits' arts and sciences. Not only was she among the earliest women in a field dominated by men, but she was one of the first news reporters to make opining on TV a regular sideline. When she first met McLaughlin while working for Newsweek, she recalls telling him, "'I'm a reporter, so I'm not supposed to have strong opinions.' And he said, 'If you want to get on this show, you'll get some strong opinions.' "

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So what does it take to make it in Punditstan? Network pundit-wranglers use words such as "passionate," "authentic" and "articulate" to describe what makes a good TV opinion spouter. Credibility and experience don't hurt, either.

"We look for the same things [a reporter] looks for in finding good sources for a print story," says Dafna Linzer, the managing editor of MSNBC and NBC News's political coverage. "We want people who have the ability to help voters understand the different moments and scenes of an election, people who can offer insight." (The difference, of course, is that the people quoted in print stories don't dominate an hour of prime time or come directly into your living room to yell at each other.)

On the other hand, unlike professional sports or even politics itself, no one keeps score in punditry. Being consistently wrong isn't necessarily disqualifying. For many years, Bill Kristol, a lion of the neoconservative movement, has made bold predictions about everything from the ease of stabilizing Iraq to Donald Trump's dubious political prospects. Many of these predictions haven't exactly panned out. Yet Kristol, now at ABC News, has been a leading citizen of Punditstan for the better part of two decades.

A pundit is more likely to get banished from the air for failing to follow the technical demands and subtle protocols of the job, said one prominent political pundit. Did the pundit talk too much or too little during a segment? Did he or she step on the host's questions or insist on getting in the last word? Does the host or show's producer simply not like you? Some producers and bookers,according to this pundit, maintain informal lists of "banned" pundits who will never be invited back.

Naturally, it doesn't hurt a political commentator to know something about politics, but intensive study isn't really necessary. One veteran TV pundit recalls preparing for his first TV appearance by reading feverishly about the topic du jour. He soon realized that this not only wasn't necessary, it might be counterproductive; all those facts can weigh like an anvil on your mind when you're asked for a snappy comment.

So now the pundit hones his approach by scoping out the all-important terms of engagement. How many minutes will he be on? How many people will be on the panel with him? Who's the host? What part of the show will he be on – the opening "A" block or a later, lighter segment? With just a few minutes of airtime, he'll marshal his zingers, deploying them as if they were his last bullets in a gunfight. Two things you'll almost certainly never hear from a TV pundit: "I don't know" and "I have no opinion about that."

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Outside of being born with a gift for gab and a reasonably pleasant appearance, it's possible to learn to be a TV pundit. Thanks to a small army of "media trainers," many of the ancient secrets of Punditstan are for sale for just a few thousand dollars and the investment of several hours of study.

Peter Zorich, who worked as a news producer at four networks, started a training company with a partner in 2014. His New York firm, Best Guest Media, is a kind of one-stop shop for punditry. In addition to training business executives, politicians, doctors and lawyers to speak more effectively on news programs, the company helps its clients land TV gigs through connections with network bookers. For good measure, the company provides trainees with talking points. It even handles the logistics of getting to the studio.

Zorich will tell you that the fastest way to get on TV is to have been on TV. Producers scout each other's programs and regularly poach promising newcomers. "A good TV guest isn't just smart and accomplished," he says. "They need energy and passion. I'm not talking about engaging in shouting matches. You have to be articulate and passionate."

Whatever the inherent flaws of punditry – the emphasis on glibness and flash, the lack of accountability – some of the knocks on it are no longer really valid. Older white men no longer dominate the field, as they did when Eleanor Clift first went before a camera.

Nor does the commentary stay strictly within a narrow range, as Bernie Sanders has asserted in his critiques of the "corporate" media. Although there's no denying that each of the cable networks has its ideological shadings and biases, each has employed pundits that reflect a political spectrum that ranges from Sanders to Ted Cruz to whatever Donald Trump is.

And sure, there's no question that some of it – maybe a lot of it – is hot air. But is it really doing harm to discourse? Is it inflaming our deepening partisan divide or somehow, in Jon Stewart's phrase, "hurting America"?

I'm not sure I know the answer. But you can count on this: The citizens of Punditstan would be happy to give you their opinion.

Farhi covers the media for The Washington Post.

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