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Are we having pundit yet?
A cheat sheet on The Post's columnist contest

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, October 25, 2009

You may have heard that The Washington Post is running a contest to find "America's next great pundit." The idea is to identify the best blogger-type opinioneer and reward him or her with a weekly column that, if it's deemed worthy, might actually be published in ink on the pages of the newspaper. A case could be made that this is like running a contest to find America's best race-car driver, with first prize being a mule. But let's not quibble.

The fact is, the nature of successful punditry has changed over the years; so, to help out all the contestants, I'd like to offer a short guide for the modern pundit.

Rule 1: Play to the crowd. In your grandpa's day, pundits were responsible, rectitudinous, walrus-mustached gentlemen such as H.V. Kaltenborn, a prominent mid-century newspaper and radio personality who observed the grave issues of the day and then told us what to think about them in sober sentences containing multiple dependent clauses. To search for an example of his writing, I Googled "H.V. Kaltenborn quotes." The very first hit was a celebrity-information Web site that had recognized Mr. Kaltenborn's name but had no information whatsoever about him. Instead, it offered links to find out "Who's Dating Who?" and "Who's Wearing What?"

My point is, times have changed. You need to give the public what it wants, not what it needs. In short, do not write, as H.V. Kaltenborn might have written, "Regarding health care, a prudent policy is the soundest policy."

Instead, write: "Regarding health care, Dr. Sanjay Gupta is dating Queen Latifah." Which he is not, but which brings us to the next point:

Rule 2: It's okay to lie a little. Just 10 years ago or so, when newspapers were fat with ads and would thud onto your driveway like sacks of wet sand, they employed legions of nitpicky know-it-alls called copy editors. While it is true that these people subsisted primarily on stool softeners, they were also very good at catching mistakes. Since virtually all of them have now been downsized, you can get away with the occasional factual misstatement that may be of forensic value to the argument you wish to make.

Example: "As Thomas Jefferson once famously said, 'So-called global warming is just a giant wad of liberal crap.' " This brings us to:

Rule 3: Being a modern pundit is like being a microwave oven -- it's about heat, not light. The current debate in America, for example, isn't whether Barack Obama is, or is not, right for the country, it's about whether Barack Obama is, or is not, Hitler. This sort of thing helpfully crystallizes issues for a public that is increasingly accustomed to black-and-white, either-or, on-the-island or off-the-island decision-making. The more simple-minded, the better.

Therefore, do not write that the Israeli government's efforts to create a sympathetic view of its policies are "a multifaceted, Web-based strategy of shrewd public relations and deft political spin." What you want to do, instead, is point out that "Israel" is an anagram of "e-liars."

And finally:

Rule 4: Keep the "hype" in "hyperbole." Consider The Post's own Charles Krauthammer, the intellectual conscience of conservative America. While nursing his wounds after the last election, Krauthammer wrote that Sen. John McCain was the "most worthy" person ever to run for president and lose, an overstatement that even McCain's mother would probably not care to defend. It was nakedly preposterous, like saying that the most tragic figure in American literature was Elmer Fudd.

But Krauthammer is a wily pro, and he knew that if you call something an opinion, you're beyond the reach of reason.

Here, then, would-be pundits, is your final lesson.

Wrong: "Barack Obama was not born in America but in Kenya, in the town of Hulubagala, in a sturdy hut made of mud, straw and giraffe bones."

Right: "Barack Obama was not born in America but in Kenya, in the town of Hulubagala, in a sturdy hut made of mud, straw and giraffe bones, I reckon."

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him on Tuesday at noon ET.

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