Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"America's Next Top Pundit" (with video)

Atrios points to this story in the Wall Street Journal (with video):
Whenever news breaks -- on the fall campaign trail, in North Korea, in the most trivial corners of Hollywood -- thousands of pundits have something to say. What most of them don't have is somewhere to say it.
They are the minor-league pundits -- political consultants, professors, activists, actors, journalists, bloggers and opinionated civilians -- and they're using 21st-century stunts to troll for airtime. Some try to break out of the blogs by repeating particular phrases in their written rants, designed to pop their sites up when TV bookers search for keywords online. Others are buying air time on AM and Internet radio stations to practice their punditry. And many are turning to media advisers or partisan training programs, where they learn new rules of engagement, such as how to use food to bribe producers. The ploys can work, as networks like CNN regularly survey the field, looking for new contributors.

Debbie Schlussel, 37 years old, supports her pundit habit by practicing commercial law in suburban Detroit. She is among the most proactive B-list pundits. Almost daily, she emails her appearance schedule, availability or sharp-elbowed conservative commentaries to 5,000 people in media and politics.

In the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear test, a hawkish Ms. Schlussel hit the radio circuit, saying U.S. officials responded too mildly in calling the test "a provocative act." "A Paris Hilton video is a provocative act," she said. "What North Korea did was an act of war." To get noticed, Ms. Schlussel says, "I've become the master of the confrontational sound bite."

"She's fearless," says Ms. Haddad, "and we need provocateurs willing to poke other people." Still, with 1,765 pundits on the producer's list of contacts, Ms. Schlussel has lots of competition for air time.

The proliferation of pundits in the last half-decade has been fueled by 24-hour cable news networks, which are built in part on the relatively cheap framework of heated discussions. And as the rise of blogging has given anyone with an opinion a public platform, more newcomers are joining the fray.

Most pundits are unpaid, but they're enticed by the potentially rewarding byproducts -- book deals, big-dollar speeches, new consulting clients and congratulatory calls from their mothers and friends. Also, pontificating on TV can be an intoxicating hobby. "It's the most fun you can have sitting down," says Paul Kedrosky, a venture capitalist from La Jolla, Calif., whose patter on a variety of subjects lands him about 35 TV appearances a year.

Mr. Kedrosky, 40, has learned to take clear positions. Many of his fellow B-listers have "too many hands," he says. "They're always saying, 'On the one hand, on the other hand.' " As he sees it, punditry is "like pounding a volleyball back and forth. You just have to remember which side of the net you're on. If you all stand on the same side, you don't have a game."

At the top of the pundit pecking order are those with hit TV or radio shows, such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. Next are the top-tiered right- and left-wing spinmeisters who've won big book deals, like Ann Coulter and Al Franken. A few steps below them are the reliable sound-bite artists -- Arianna Huffington, Ed Rollins, James Carville, Donna Brazile, Bob Shrum and Bay Buchanan.

Minor leaguers, meanwhile, are most likely to get a call from the Bigs when A-listers are too busy or lazy to go on TV. Holiday weekends, for instance, are times when up-and-comers get to show up and shine.

Class distinctions in the pundit trade are easy to spot. A-listers are offered limo rides by the networks. B-listers often drive their own cars or take a cab. Some A-listers are paid to appear as network contributors, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Fox, former Congressman J.C. Watts on CNN, and Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter on MSNBC. (Payments range from a couple hundred dollars per appearance for some regulars to several thousand dollars for the biggest names.) In lieu of payment, B-listers receive coffee mugs with a show's logo.


Many minor leaguers take a methodical approach to getting recognized. They don't just stand on the patio of the "Today" show, shouting pithy remarks at Al Roker, hoping to be discovered. Instead, they invest in promoting themselves and honing their skills.

This year, more than 1,000 people paid between $760 and $1,995 to buy ads in the Washington-based "Yearbook of Experts," which TV bookers turn to for guests. In New York, the Learning Annex, an adult-education program, hired a former producer from CNN and a BET Radio Network producer to teach would-be pundits such skills as "how to design an irresistible hook" and "how to build up your profile."

In Racine, Wis., Don Crowther runs 101PublicRelations.com7, a company that sells audio CD seminars priced from $39.95 to $79.95. Mr. Crowther says tens of thousands of people have bought his pundit-related products, with titles such as "How to Get Booked on 'The View.' "

He advises wannabe pundits to get face time and experience on local newscasts first, and to woo station decision-makers. One tip: "Send three-dozen doughnuts to the newsroom with a card that says, 'Thanks for considering me for your upcoming shows.' "Do such blatant ploys work on jaded news professionals? "They tend to roll their eyes," Mr. Crowther says. "But they eat it and they remember you."

Others suggest befriending A-listers, so they will recommend you to bookers if they're unable to make an appearance.

Network producers say B-list pundits sometimes overdo on-air strategies. There's the "Leaning Forward Trick," where you lean toward the host to show you are engaged in the discussion. There's the "Well, Bob," where you ingratiate yourself by repeating the host's name.

TV producers can grow weary of the pundits' attention off the air as well. "It's almost like they're salesmen with a tickle file. They keep checking back with you," says Russ Hodge, a former producer on talk shows including "Politically Incorrect" and "The McLaughlin Group." He once received a hair dryer as a gift from a would-be guest. Their motivation isn't just about ego, he says. "They're also looking for approval. Does the world think enough of my ideas?"

Sam Feist, CNN's U.S. senior executive producer of political programming, says would-be pundits often send him DVDs of themselves in action, but he rarely watches them. And unlike a few years ago, he now hears regularly from TV agents representing pundits, he says.

Media advisers also have tips to help bloggers get noticed by bookers running online searches. Mr. Crowther tells bloggers to find two- and three-word combinations and to use them repeatedly in their copy. Ambitious bloggers take those targeted key words -- "patriotic Republicans," for instance, or "Bush administration mistakes" -- and include them in comments posted on other people's blogs, with links to their own pages.

To raise her profile, Ms. Schlussel blogs all day long, and works every other angle, too. Whenever she's asked to appear on a show, she sends out "Me On..." email blasts, with subject lines like "Me On Fox News Cavuto."

Her sound bites infuriate many people, which builds buzz. She argues that the WNBA is lame and boring. She compares female golfers seeking to play on the men's tour to the midget who in 1951 played baseball for the St. Louis Browns as a publicity stunt. She charges that radical Muslims are threatening America by posing as moderates. For research, she has gone undercover, disguised in a hijab, at political meetings in the Arab-American stronghold of Dearborn, Mich., which she calls "Dearbornistan."


She has even criticized the Winter Olympics. When asked about curling on CNN, she said, "They play it down in south Florida before the early-bird special, and there it's called shuffleboard." Clarence Wright, the 75-year-old president of the Florida Shuffleboard Association, says shuffleboard is "more challenging than football, basketball or baseball."

Ms. Schlussel often spars on the radio with Howard Stern, who makes fun of her wonkish chatter and her unwillingness to reveal sexual secrets -- but gives her a forum to discuss issues that matter to her. She first appeared on Mr. Stern's show when she called in and got through while the World Trade Center was still burning on Sept. 11, 2001.

So far this year, Ms. Schlussel has appeared on more than 600 radio shows and 35 TV programs, she says. But while Ms. Coulter, America's most-famous blonde pundit, earns millions, the also-blonde Ms. Schlussel has earned well under $10,000 this year from her punditry, she says. Still, Ms. Schlussel feels momentum: Her online fan clubs have grown to 5,496 members.

Michael Smerconish, 44, considers punditry a calling. In 2002, he left his law practice to host a Philadelphia radio show, and soon got noticed by cable networks. He is now a frequent "Today" show guest and a fill-in host on Bill O'Reilly's radio show. He'd like to reach ever-larger audiences. "I believe I am someone with things of substance to say," he says.

He's far from alone. Several dozen radio stations sell air time to pundits. WNJC-AM, based in southern New Jersey, is "brokered radio," charging show hosts about $125 an hour. The station is sold out 24 hours a day, with about 30 paying pundits, says John Forsythe, the station's owner. He believes reality TV has led more regular folks to think they belong on the air.

Although his station is small, Mr. Forsythe uses imagery to pitch would-be pundits. "At rush hour, 20,000 people might be tuned in to us," he says. "Picture Madison Square Garden filled with people listening to what you have to say." Accountant Brian Greenberg, 49, hosts a WNJC show on Thursday nights. He would love to land a national talk show, though he knows he's at a disadvantage, since he's a political "agnostic" who doesn't argue with guests. "When tact comes back in style," he says, "I'll be in vogue."

In a search for emerging talent, CNN last year hosted 100 young writers, bloggers and political consultants at a reception titled "The New Guard." "We wanted to broaden our Rolodexes and cultivate new voices," says David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief.

In 1999, a Fox News executive, vacationing at the Jersey shore, spotted 21-year-old Flavia Colgan on a Philadelphia TV station. She was working in local Democratic politics at the time. Impressed by her looks and comments, the executive hooked her up with network chief Roger Ailes, who quickly gave her a paid-pundit deal. "I didn't know what the word 'pundit' was," she says. (For the record, it means "learned person.") Now 29, Ms. Colgan does punditry all over TV, including chatting with celebrities about social issues for the syndicated show "Extra."

Partisan groups are helping the new generation polish its punditry. At the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Va., conservatives receive media training in "political technology," based in part on the communication skills of Ronald Reagan. In June, at the YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas -- sponsored by the liberal blog DailyKos.com8 -- bloggers and activists attended a "Pundit Project" training session, designed to help them hone their on-air personas. Among other tips, they were told to wear collared, button-down shirts, crucial for microphone-clipping.

Such partisan efforts worry Andrew Cline, a Missouri State University journalism professor who has tracked the art of punditry. Wannabes are sensing that overconfidence is a prerequisite for success, and "that there are only two positions in the world, yours and wrong," he says. Given the current political and media landscape, he says, he's skeptical that a "uniter pundit" could emerge.

Finding Centrists

Some producers say they are weary of the bickering between the left and right, each parroting talking points emailed from party headquarters. Most news-talk shows have pundits representing only "the four poles -- Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives," says CNN's Mr. Bohrman. He has an Internet reporter "scouring the blogs," partly to look for non-partisans who can articulate the middle ground in an engaging way. He says he'd love to find the great American "centrist pundit."

That will never be Ms. Schlussel, of course. She is proud that Ms. Magazine labeled her a "woman to watch out for" and described her as "anti everything progressive." And it doesn't bother her that she is deemed one of the most annoying Americans by AmIAnnoying.com9; as of this week, 76% of 4,231 voters considered her annoying. But she keeps plugging away.

Last year, Jason Alexander was on Howard Stern's show pitching a children's book he'd written. Ms. Schlussel called in and berated the "Seinfeld" actor for supporting OneVoice, a group that advocates nonviolent conflict resolution in the Middle East. Ms. Schlussel charged that the organization has ties to Hamas. Mr. Stern got laughs saying he'd like to create a "Six Degrees of Separation" game based on her ability to connect any person to terrorists in six links or less.

After much arguing, and repeated impersonations of a raving Ms. Schlussel by Mr. Stern's sidekicks, Mr. Alexander lamented on air that he "came in to talk about a children's book and ended up being branded a terrorist."

Ms. Schlussel thought the segment made great theater. And she's thrilled that, even as a B-lister, she has the power to reach millions of people with information they're not hearing elsewhere.

Ask her to survey the punditry landscape, from the A-list on down, and she gets contemplative. "Who is good who does what I do?" she says out loud as she thinks. Soon enough, the answer comes to her. "Me!"
Howie P.S.: Grab those donuts and get in line.

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