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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.

And those are just the prime-time regulars. All three cable networks have small, standing armies of political journalists, think-tank wonks, ex-pols and vaguely affiliated political figures (typically described on the air as Democratic or Republican "strategists") to provide commentary and predictions at other hours of the day.

Still more demand for punditry comes from the weekend public-affairs programs on the broadcast networks; from public television and radio programs; and from foreign broadcasters, which have shown strong interest in this campaign.

These days, pundits-in-waiting such as Peter Mirijanian don't have to wait long for their phones to ring. Mirijanian, a Democrat who runs his own public relations firm in Washington, estimates that he has been on TV hundreds of times over the past seven years, usually to offer comments about companies or celebrities embroiled in a crisis. Mirijanian says he now gets "two to three" calls a week from TV networks that want him to talk about the presidential race.

Pundits are in such demand that they have to be ready to suit up at any hour. Rachel Sklar, a writer for the Huffington Post Web site, recently detailed her expanding portfolio of TV-commentary assignments on her Facebook page: "Rachel is on CTV in Canada in about 5 mins (at about 9:40 pm)," she wrote. "And on CNN at 2 am, yo. And MSNBC from 3-5 a.m. Super Wednesday slumber party!"

There's the question, of course, of how much wisdom and foresight the pundits truly provide. Many pundits wrote off John McCain's candidacy early on; they suggested Hillary Clinton was doomed after losing in Iowa; and they counted Mike Huckabee out on Super Tuesday, among other miscues.

Commentators have also been called out by media watchdogs for sometimes intemperate commentary. Matthews last month apologized for saying on MSNBC "the reason Hillary Clinton may be a front-runner is her husband messed around." MSNBC guest-host David Shuster earlier this month apologized and was suspended for saying the Clinton campaign was "pimping out" the Clintons' daughter, Chelsea. And Time magazine's Mark Halperin apologized last week for using a crude word to describe John Edwards's assessment of Barack Obama's readiness to be president.

Olbermann sees strengths and weaknesses in having so many voices on a news set. On one hand, he says, having lots of people doling out short bits of commentary can feed "the Short Attention Span Theater that American politics has become." Conversely, "the advantage is, if you rotate all these people, you actually give them significant amounts of time off to think about what's happening. Or call people. Or talk amongst themselves."

It may also be helping the ratings. From late December to mid-February, CNN, Fox and MSNBC collectively recorded a 62 percent increase in their prime-time audience, compared with the same period in the last campaign in 2003-04, according to Nielsen data. During all hours of the day, the increase for the three networks was 73 percent.

So how do the networks go about drafting their pundit teams? Credentials matter. Experience working in or covering a campaign counts, producers say. It also helps if you can expound clearly, crisply and provocatively (which might explain why the cable networks like such talk-radio hosts as Maddow, Martin, Dennis Prager and Ed Schultz, among others).

Mirijanian has worked in two presidential campaigns, but his status as a go-to pundit might be a result of his experience -- as a TV pundit. "Let's face it: The bookers have to fill slots all day," he says. "They're asking themselves, 'Who do I know who can go on, who's reliable, and will do a good job?' "

When assembling a group of pundits, the goal is to create "chemistry" among them, says Bill Wolff, MSNBC's vice president of prime-time programming. "You want folks who like and respect each other, who listen to what the other guy says and then respond in an interesting, fair and compelling way," he says. "You want [viewers] to say, 'They're great together.' There's some degree of luck involved, but as they say, luck is the residue of design."

The networks also strive for balance: "Ideally, you want diversity of experience, diversity of [political views] and a group of people who look completely different from each other," says veteran news producer Tammy Haddad, who consults for the National Journal and Newsweek (owned by The Washington Post Co.). "We're seeing a much broader and deeper rotation of voices in this election, I think. In the old days, it was the same four guys."

For the cable networks, the benefit of punditry is that this type of talk is literally cheap. Most experts invited to comment on TV receive no compensation for their opinion slinging, according to news producers. For a select few, however, the rewards of the job can be good, and sometimes great. Several news organizations have agreements with the networks to use the organization's journalists on the air (under a deal with MSNBC, Post reporters receive $100 for daytime appearances and $300 for prime-time segments).

The next step up is a retainer deal, which binds a pundit to a particular network for regular or semi-regular "hits," as segment interviews are known.

An elite cadre at the top of the pundit pyramid -- Mike Barnicle and Newsweek's Fineman on MSNBC; Williams and Kristol on Fox News; Borger and Toobin on CNN -- have annual contracts that tie them to a network on a half- or full-time basis. Such deals can pay as much as $200,000 annually, producers say.

Punditry could be a growth market for some time to come. Assessing his stable of regular analysts, Sam Feist, CNN's political director, says: "I think we've found the right number for our recent election nights."

So CNN now has all the talking heads it needs?

Not necessarily.

"We're always tweaking our team of political contributors," he says. "I won't say we won't add more" as the campaign continues.

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