Political Pundits, Overpopulating the News Networks

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It's a great time for face time if you want to be a pundit on TV.

With the cable news networks ramping up wall-to-wall political coverage, the demand for people to analyze, comment upon and speculate wildly about the presidential race has expanded accordingly. The nation's economy might be coughing and wheezing, but there is no shortage of employment opportunities in Punditland.

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann says that when he introduces his network's lineup of analysts and commentators on primary and caucus nights these days, it conjures up the long-winded introductions on an old variety show. "I am reminded of the way 'Hee Haw' opened," Olbermann says. "I am sorely tempted to finish [the list] with 'Joe Scarborough, Rachel Maddow, Gene Robinson and Pat Buchanan -- Grandpa Jones! . . . Junior Samples! . . . the Hager Twins!' "

Not to mention the rest of MSNBC's prime-time punditocracy -- the Buck Owenses and Minnie Pearls, as it were: Tucker Carlson! Chuck Todd! Howard Fineman! Richard Wolffe!

Why are so many called to opine so often? Primarily because the news networks are covering the campaign so intensely, fueled by higher-than-usual viewership this year.

During the week of Super Tuesday, 75 percent of available airtime on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News was dedicated to dissecting the campaign, according to the Washington-based, nonprofit Project for Excellence in Journalism. That was more than 10 times the amount the cable news networks spent on the next most heavily reported story that week: the tornadoes in the Midwest and Southeast (the war in Iraq didn't make the top five).

"We're devoting as much coverage to the primaries as the networks gave to NASA in the 1960s, only we're covering two or three moon shots a week," says Olbermann, who on Super Tuesday co-hosted the coverage with Chris Matthews for eight straight hours.

On other news networks as well, small armies of political pundits are needed to fill the many hours.

CNN assembles so many commentators for its primary-night shows that it arrays its talking heads in panels of four abreast, as if echoing the setup on "Family Feud." On Super Tuesday, the network's pundits and analysts included a bank of B's -- Bennett (Bill), Begala (Paul), Bernstein (Carl), Brazile (Donna) and Borger (Gloria). They were in addition to David Gergen, Amy Holmes, Roland Martin, Jeffrey Toobin and Jamal Simmons.

The fight for the mike became so intense that at one point Bennett cracked that he had been reduced to CNN's "second string" of pundits.

"My feeling is the more the merrier," says CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, who is often required to play hot-air-traffic controller to the many voices. "When you're on the air as long as we are, you want a nice diversity and range of opinions -- liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans."

Not to be outmanned, Fox News's "A" team includes a sort of reconstituted "McLaughlin Group" (Eleanor Clift, Fred Barnes, Morton Kondracke, Michael Barone, Dick Morris), as well as other familiar veterans (William Kristol, Juan Williams) and a former politician (Newt Gingrich). Fox's newest campaign commentator is Karl Rove, President Bush's former political mastermind.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company