America's Next Great Pundit: The Final Four

The Pundit Final Four
Monday, November 16, 2009; 11:00 AM

We're down to the final four -- out of about 4,800 entrants -- in the America's Next Great Pundit competition. Courtney Martin, Jeremy Haber, Kevin Huffman and Zeba Khan have made it through two rounds of challenges and reader voting. Now, for their next challenge, they fielded questions -- about themselves, their columns and blogging efforts so far, and why they should win the opportunity to write a weekly column for The Washington Post.

A transcript of the discussion follows.

And after, cast your vote for the contestant you think fared best during the discussion and read what Gene Weingarten thought of their efforts.

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Zeba Khan: Hi Folks, Just want to say what a great experience this competition has been and I want to thank the Post for the opportunity to talk with readers. I'm looking forward to starting this conversation

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Kevin Huffman: Good morning! Excited to be here. This is the first time I have "met" any of the other finalists, which is kind of exciting. I'm also pretty fired up that we are the opening act for Dr. Gridlock and then Michael Wilbon, a couple of Post chat legends.

Let's do this!

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Jeremy Haber: Hi everyone, thanks for coming to the chat! Look forward to your questions. Forgive me if I am off my game, still getting over the Patriots loss last night.

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Courtney Martin: Happy Monday morning everyone, Courtney E. Martin here. I'm a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, ready and willing to answer your questions in between bites of bagel.

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Santa Fe, N.M.: Have you ever read a blog? The blog entries last week seemed either to be clueless or parodies of the worst of the blogosphere.

Also, what do you see as the role of a pundit? So far I don't see much of what I consider punditry in the product. Or, yes I do, if I take the worst parodies of punditry by the blogosphere.

No wait. I take that back. Those parodies are at least witty.

Courtney Martin: Hi Santa Fe. I'm jealous of your big skies and incredible posole, but on to your real concerns...

Yes, I have read a blog before. In fact, I write regularly for the top read feminist blog in the world, Feministing.com. I'm sorry you found my fellow pundits and I so clueless. I actually enjoyed the range of commentary that emerged from last week's round. And on that note, I think that blogging is a much more diverse medium than most people realize.

As far as the role of the pundit goes--I see myself as someone who cuts through the cacophony of the day and asks the unasked questions, someone who doesn't fall in line with whatever the received wisdom is, but thinks hard, long, and originally about the most important ethical considerations of a given topic, someone who inspires and maybe even entertains.

You can certainly see this in many of my fellow writers' pieces--Zeba, painting a vision for Detroit, Kevin, taking a new spin on Agassi, Jeremy, asking tough questions on the campaign trail.

Zeba Khan: Ha. I appreciate the sarcasm, Santa Fe. As I said in response to a different question, I think a pundit helps broaden the debate by providing either expertise or through sound research and analysis on a topic unfamiliar to them. I think all of us are new to the field of "punditry" and that can account for some weaknesses in everyone's submissions. But I think I do see improvements over the past two rounds that suggest that overall there is growth and improvement. Hopefully we'll impress you in future rounds!

Kevin Huffman: What is this "blog" of which you speak?

Yes, I read too many blogs and op-eds. Sorry we aren't living up in your view. I will say this from last week: blogging is harder than I would have guessed. It's tough to strike the right balance, get into and out of an issue quickly in a way that keeps the readers' interest. I also think we got stronger as the week progressed.

Pundits should have unique takes on current events. They should make you think about the issue whether you agree or disagree.

Jeremy Haber: think my fellow contestants have covered good ground here!

I will only add that increasing we are blurring the line between news and entertainment -- a good pundit should be more newsman than showman.

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San Francisco: Contestants,

Please pick one of the other three finalists and tell us why he or she deserves to be America's Next Great Pundit.

Thank you.

Kevin Huffman: Wow, tough one right out of the gate. PC answer first, not sure there is a "deserve" outside of what readers and the Post want. I think there are four unique styles in the mix here and that gives readers a chance to really think about who they would want to see on the op-ed page for at least a few months.

But pundits take a stand, right? I'm throwing in with Zeba, and not just because she is a fellow Buckeye state native. I like her logical thought process and arguments and think she has written about a few things (e.g. Islamic finance) that you don't usually see in the Post.

Jeremy Haber: Yeah, not wasting any time getting to heart of it. One of the things I have learned in the contest is how hard this is! So I have been impressed with all the candidates and think Courtney, Zeba + Kevin would all do well as Post columnists.

I too liked Zeba's stories, particularly the one on Ashoka and Eden Full.

Courtney Martin: I willfully refuse to pick just one...

Huff: Great sense of humor, obviously. I think that having someone on the op-ed pages with a deep commitment and wide knowledge of our public education system would be a real plus. At a time when people are obsessed with The Daily Show, I can see why his style would really succeed with a wide range of readers.

Haber: It's nice to see a pundit with such an eye for reporting and the access to make good on it. I could imagine Haber bringing local races to the national stage in a way that enlivens civic dialogue.

Khan: Zeba has written with a lot of clarity about some really novel ideas, and besides that, she's a woman of color--a real rarity on the op-ed pages through out the nation. Eighty percent of op-eds that appear on major newspapers are written by men currently. The Op-Ed Project, an organization that both Zeba and I have connections to, acts to change this, arguing that we are all disserviced when 52% of the population isn't a representative and lively part of public debate.

Zeba Khan: Wow, that's a tough one. I think Jeremy, Kevin, and Courtney all have their strengths. To be honest, I'm having a tough time choosing between Kevin and Courtney. Kevin has certainly been able to share a sense of himself in his writing which is admirable and Courtney's posts have been inventive. Both have qualities you want to see in a pundit. Tough call, though.

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Sterling Va.: Discuss your reactions to the word "Pundit"?

Zeba Khan: When I think of a pundit, my hope is for a person who either has extensive knowledge about a particular topic or someone who has a curious mind and an ability to research and analyze. And along with that set of skills, I think a pundit should be able to convey their analysis in a way that informs and pushes others to think about aspects of the news of the day that go beyond conventional thought. I think it's a service if a pundit can help broaden the debate.

Kevin Huffman: Definitely someone who has a strong fact base and a viewpoint. If you want to know the dry, objective version of what happened, you can already get that on Fox News. (or maybe the newspaper).

Personally, I read/watch my favorite pundits because they push my thinking, either by linking events or drawing analogies I hadn't considered, or pulling out facts or information I didn't know about.

The mixed part: something about DC makes people take themselves far too seriously. I like it when people maintain some perspective!

Jeremy Haber: In today's media world, I think of people competing to voice the most extreme position loudest. Think it should be more than just opinion, a rehashing of the news.

We have too many of the same voices, responding to very little real reporting and the issues discussed are often not the most important of the day -- just the most sensational.

Courtney Martin: I like my fellow pundits' perspectives on this--clearly a great pundit is someone with both a fierce hunger for truth and a unique voice to amplify their take to the larger world.

I think of punditry as a public service and an art. In regards to the former, we need "curators" and commentators more than ever in this 24/7 news cycle--smart, ethical people who can cut through the crap and offer us a real perspective on the issues of the day. In regards to the latter, it takes a truly unique voice to capture the public's imagination at this time when there is an overabundance of information and those willing to dish it out.

As a pundit, I think my duty is more about asking good questions than having all the right answers. A big misconception is that a pundit is supposed to be a blowhard know-it-all. Instead, I like my pundits like I like my teachers--smart as hell, but humble, empathic, thoughtful, and inquisitive.

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Belfast, Maine: Do you see any hope for third party movements rising from the bottom up? Could Hoffman be successful in a solidly Republican district in the southeast, or a leftist candidate in the northeast?

Jeremy Haber: A timely question given Doug Hoffman's near victory as the Conservative party nominee in NY-23 special election. But I don't think he or anyone else is likely to lead a 3rd party movement anytime soon. The institutional barriers (money, political talent, campaign organization) remain very high. Think Hoffman clearly had a big impact on GOP though.

Courtney Martin: Well, we saw what happened with third party movements in the 2000 election--the first I ever voted in. I was one of the wide-eyed kids who thought that it was better to vote for the candidate I most identified with than to be strategic. Mistake.

I think that's the double-edged sword of third party candidates--they put great pressure on the ol' mainstays to articulate a definitive position and set themselves apart, but they also lure the least strategic of voters out of the real race in a way that can end in disaster (my little pet name for Bush's 8 years in office).

Zeba Khan: To be honest, while I've always hoped that we would have more viable choices to compete with the two dominant parties, I find it hard to see that possibility actually come to reality any time soon. In the case of Hoffman, I think he could win in a solidly Republican district in the southeast...provided that he actually lived there and didn't just transplant himself for the election. People like a bit more authenticity.

Kevin Huffman: Yes, though I think it's coming from a different direction than you outline. I think in the next 20 years, we will see a viable presidential candidate running straight up the middle as an independent/third party.

No doubt, you'll see folks like Hoffman in individual races win from the far right (or the far left). But to me the more interesting question is whether someone can run as a pragmatic centrist in a national election. I'm old enough to remember Perot giving it a good run and polling higher than Bush 41 and Clinton deep into the summer.

I actually think Bloomberg was ready to give it a go if the stars had aligned for him. He needed extreme candidates on either side, and instead he got a couple of relatively moderate primary winners. But imagine this scenario: Edwards wins the primary and implodes, and Hucakbee wins the R's - Bloomberg would have been VERY viable.

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Mount Rainer, Md.: Good morning, and good luck! Two part question - what major news story do you think is NOT getting the coverage it deserves?

Zeba Khan: I think one of the biggest stories we aren't hearing about is the millions of Iraqi refugess who do not live in their homes and want to go back. With so many IDPs and refugees, this could lead to sever instability in the country, especially after the U.S. pulls out all of its troops. And instability in Iraq has larger ramifications for the entire region.

Kevin Huffman: Housing values and the drag on mobility. I touched on this in a post last week, but I think the easy areas of focus have been a) sub-prime mortgages and the nearly fraudulent practices of lenders and b) corresponding foreclosures. A far bigger issue in my view is what the decline in value has done to the middle class, how it impacts choices people make in other areas of their lives, how those choices impact the rest of the economy.

Jeremy Haber: The new bill extending unemployment insurance also included up to $33 billion in lock-back loss tax breaks for large corporations, including home builders. In essence, we allow these builders to make phony profits and then use them to write off inevitable losses, in this case up to five years later. Do we really need to trade $33 billion just to extend unemployment insurance?

Courtney Martin: Wow, there are so many undercovered stories that's it's difficult to know where to start. The housing crisis is top on the list--poor people of color, especially women, are still disproportionately targeted for outrageous mortgage loans. It makes me sick. The failing public education system in this country gets short shrift in comparison to all the other looming issues, like the economy. We simply must do a better just on education reporting across the nation.

And beyond our borders, of course, there are so many undercovered stories--both devastating and hopeful. Wish I had more time to explore this question!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Great Pundits:

The great issues facing America today are the economy, unemployment, health care, two wars, and the debt. Yet in the 41 blogs in Round 2 these issues were addressed collectively less than 10 times. How can anyone be a Great Pundit when what you write about is not Great?

Courtney Martin: Hi Silver Spring, thanks for reminding us of the big questions of the day. I actually wrote about health care and the war, but I understand your frustration with the fact that we seemed--as a group--to avoid digging into some of the most difficult challenges facing Americans.

In part I think this was an attempt to write about something undiscovered or novel. There is so much copy being produced, so much airtime being devoted, to the big issues--the economy, health care, the war--that it makes it difficult to say something new about it. But of course there's no excuse for not tackling the hardest material, and I hope that we'll all challenge ourselves to do that more often. Thanks for the push.

Jeremy Haber: To that list of things I wish I had covered I would add:

problems with officer retention, the lack of privacy for soldiers wanting to get mental health care and cyber warfare. Can't do it all.

Kevin Huffman: Two thoughts: first, I think we hit a lot of important issues and had some pretty different takes on them. Second, I think in the context of blogging - particularly in a contest like this - we should have some perspective and balance the serious issues with some pieces that are a little more off the beaten path. I didn't get the sense that the Post readers were missing an outlet for war and the debt. though agree we need to show chops on these too.

Zeba Khan: Hi Silver Spring. I agree that the issues you've mentioned are critical ones. The economic devastation in Detroit was the inspiration for my piece on Islamic finance. But I don't think that the other pieces didn't focus on important issues. The idea of technology and innovation, things I discussed in my social innovators feature for example, are critical to our economic recovery just as much as improving regulation on Wall Street.

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Skokie, Ill.: Since all of you had to blog about the president's Asian trip during round two, I'd like for each of you to tell us what you think the most significant moment or outcome of the trip has been so far.

Thank you.

Jeremy Haber: I thought it was interesting that the first question President Obama got in China was about Afghanistan. I don't think we have seen or will see big outcomes from this trip. The agenda and our leverage is light. If China keeps buying our increasingly less valuable dollars, I'll call that a big win.

Courtney Martin: Jeremy's right in terms of observable outcomes...it seems like this trip is more of an attempt to prime the canvas than paint the real picture. I think that Obama is nurturing relationships, setting the tone, creating some common ground, that he will then use in the future to try to push through some economic and environmental policies that benefit all of us. Or that's my hope. Obviously the APEC conversation is disappointing, especially with regards to climate change, but we've got to take a long range view.

Zeba Khan: President Obama just finished his first day in China. Many have likened the trip to a excessive shopaholic coming to pay respects to their banker. I think that assessment is fair to a certain extent. What we don't know is to what extent President Obama has been pushing China on issues such as human rights and transparency. He spoke with students yesterday to push human rights forward which might be the only way he can talk about it publicly given our financial relationship with China. I just hope he's pushing the Chinese harder on the issue behind closed doors.

Kevin Huffman: Thought his answer to the Twitter question in the student forum was fascinating yesterday. If you missed it, students (carefully monitored) got to ask questions and one asked about the firewall on internet sites, and the use of Twitter. Obama stepped cautiously for a bit and then said basically that as a leader, he hates getting criticized but it's good for him to hear other perspectives, etc. It was an interesting sort of dog-whistle answer, Obama straight to the Chinese youth, via a Twitter question. I think the internet, Twitter etc. have the chance to profoundly impact Chinese government controls in the future.

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San Francisco: To what extent do the teachers' unions prevent meaningful education reform and what can be done about it?

Kevin Huffman: It's an important question, and I think the answer is more nuanced than is covered in the press. Secretary Duncan is trying to push everyone - unions, districts, colleges of ed - to think more broadly (via the new "Race to the Top" fund in which the department of Ed gives out grants to states that provide the most compelling reform agendas). Unions have a critical voice on issues like school conditions etc. But the real question is where they will come out on linking student achievement data back to the teachers and letting that be a part of evaluations. This is a huge battle area, and national unions are showing signs of being more receptive, but this will play out over the next year or so.

Zeba Khan: Teacher unions are meant to protect teacher tenure but have been come to be seen by many as an inhibitor to progress. Sec. Duncan recently referred to our public school system as "drop-out factories" and clearly wants to push the debate forward. We need to continue this debate to see what role unions should and can play in improving our school system.

Courtney Martin: I defer to Kevin on this one, since it is obviously his major era of expertise. What I've seen in my various experiences with public education is that unions protect hard-working, underpaid teachers in really important ways and provide a communal way to create pressure on sometimes horrible stagnant systems. On the other hand, some of these unions also replicate the stagnancy in their own refusal to experiment and do what's best for children. I've been following Michelle Rhee's innovative work closely on this.

Jeremy Haber: A month or so ago, the New Yorker published a deviating piece by Steven Brill on the efforts by Joel Klein to fire incompetent teachers. They have been quarantined in the "rubber room" where they are paid not to work. It can take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to fire them. Check out the article, most informative thing I have read on the subject.

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Arlington, VA: Last night, the Patriots went for it on 4 and 2 on the 28 yardline. This very unusual coaching decision did not work and resulted in an Indy touchdown and the Patriots losing the game.

My question is how much should we punish those who make an unconventional decision and it doesn't work? Should the coach's (or General or President's) job be on the line even with a good history? Or do we forgive and forget?

Zeba Khan: This is an interesting question. I think it depends on what we're talking about. If we're talking about entrepreneurs, taking educated risk is extremely important to innovation. It's what lead to progress. But when entrepreneurs take a risk and they fail, the market lets them know pretty quickly. In the case of the government, say the President, the reaction to a poor decision can and often does, translate a little farther down the line in the form of losing the Congress or four years later, losing the presidential election. And I think in terms of ramifications for bad decisions, that's completely fair and part and parcel of politics.

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Lancaster, PA: I have private health insurance. I do not want the government to interfere with it. I also have car insurance, house insurance, and service contracts on all my appliances. These are all private business transactions. What gives the government the right to get involved?

Jeremy Haber: You spend more money on health care because our government is less involved than in other countries. As a country, we spend more than double what other pier countries spend on health care -- and get less for it.

Many states require people to have auto insurance and a certain amount house coverage, not sure why health care should be different.

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Glen, N.H.: 4th and 2: do you go for it or punt?

Kevin Huffman: Was that the biggest brain cramp you have EVER seen a coach have? The announcers were stunned - you could watch Collinsworth's gears turn as he tried to process: "Dumbest-decision-of-all-time-but-it's-bellichick-so-maybe-i'm-missing-something...."

(If you missed, the Pats gave away the game going for it).

I'm a Buckeye fan and Coach Tressel would consider punting on 2nd and 2, so we're used to the other extreme.

Jeremy Haber: I'm not sure I'm ready to discuss "the punt", so let me say one other thing about the game. Belichick deserves more blame for having a defense that can't hold a 17 point 4th quarter lead, than the 4th and 2 decision. Anyone really think the Pats would have stopped Manning wherever they started?

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Kensington, Calif.: Why is it that only 15% of all op-eds are written by women?

Zeba Khan: Great question. The simple answer is that the Op-ed pages of our national papers pretty much reflect the percentage of women who actually submit op-eds. So we can't blame the editors for that one! I think the more interesting question is why so few women actually submit op-eds to the editors. There's a great ngo called the Op-Ed Project which I am an alumna of that focuses on encouraging women to submit more op-eds to the papers. Like any minority, I think women do a disservice by not contributing to the national discussion as much as their male counterparts.

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to Kevin: How will your Teach for America background impact your writing if you win this competition? Do you feel a commitment or obligation to emphasize education-related issues?

Kevin Huffman: Great question. I've actually been taking the opposite path so far, avoiding education issues altogether. I think as a contestant (as opposed to an official writer) it's hard for me to have an opinion on ed policy issues and not have the opinion accrue to Teach For America, so I've been pretty cautious. If I'm lucky enough to win, I will write on education (though obviously not exclusively) - I have some pretty strong feelings as you might guess.

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Austin, Texas: Zeba, how do you pronounce your first name? Does it sound more like Zeeba or Zayba? Also, your name is a very common name in Afghanistan - are you from there?

Zeba Khan: Thanks for the question! I've asked my parents the same thing because depending on where someone's from, they pronounce it a different way. For me, it's more like "Zayba" but I've been told that in Iran for example, they pronounce it "Zeeba." My parents are from India but if you trace the generations back, we're from Afghanistan.

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Boston: What negative repercussions, if any, have there been for you personally or professionally by putting yourself and your views out there publicly in this contest?

Kevin Huffman: Hi - great question. My family and friends get indignant when they see reader comments slamming me. Hilariously, they compound the issue frequently by calling and reading them to me so I can relive the pain multiple times.

Professionally, the hardest part of the whole contest is having a somewhat crazy day-job that doesn't stop for punditry. Last week was nutty; I just gave up on sleeping.

Just to show my sappy side though, far and away the best part of the experience has been reconnecting with old friends and colleagues who have appeared out of the woodwork. That's the legacy of this whole contest that matters most.

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Social networking gets votes?: It seems there is some concern that the 4 of you are still in the contest because you have used your more youthful social networks on the internet to obtain votes. Do you think there is truth in this? Were more able writers eliminated earlier because they didn't have enough "facebook friends?"

Kevin Huffman: God bless you for throwing me in the youthful category. I'm printing this question and showing my daughters tonight.

The question has merit, though it's probably a slightly nuanced version of what you are asking. Not sure whether facebook friend numbers ultimately matter, but I think like in any relatively low voter turnout election, getting out the "base" matters. So, while I wouldn't attribute results to facebook, twitter, etc., I got forwarded emails from friends showing that their aunt or their neighbor voted for me.

As an aside, this contest led me to: a) post my first ever Facebook status update! and b) join Twitter, where to date I have acquired exactly one follower. So I can tell you Twitter isn't rocking the vote for me.

Courtney Martin: I'm so glad you asked this question! I think one of the limits of this contest is that it relies too heavily on the public vote, which as you wisely point out, equals popularity contest to some extent. The original ten were chosen because of their writing, point blank. I was so honored when I got the call that out of 4800 entries, I was one of ten who would be participating.

But since then, there's been a lot of focus on spreading the word among my network. As someone with a large built-in network--I'm, indeed, young, but I also blog for a site with high readership, have a large Facebook friend group etc.--I benefit. And I'm not going to sit back and refuse to take advantage of the platform I've worked hard to build, but I can say that I wish the contest were structured with more focus on the quality of the writing. No one should have been disqualified because they don't know how to poke someone on Facebook.

Zeba Khan: I think social networking sites do play a role in who proceeds forward. I don't think it is the only factor, but I too miss Richter and Gyamfi- both of whom I think were strong writers and offered something unique. Is it coincidence that they both were on the older/less virtually connected side of participants... I'm not so sure.

Jeremy Haber: yes it matters, no I am not a big fan of Facebook, its a little creepy sometimes.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Courtney,

Good approach in the Thanksgiving table. Would have liked more regarding the dynamics of the Thanksgiving table, ie how does the family unit related to differences on the deeper topics of our day and how that does/does not relate to the social dynamics we see played out in the nation's conscience in the mainstream. How can I trust you to be able to extend the micro to the macro and possibly macro to micro?

Courtney Martin: Hi there Kennesaw. I was just in Atlanta...wonder how close we were?

Thanks for the props. One a lot of the "deeper topics" of the day, as you put it, my extended family disagrees. We vote differently, worship differently, even structure our families differently. But what we do agree on is the power of engaging with those unlike us as a surefire way to get smarter and kinder. We don't yell (we're Scottish, not Italian). We don't throw dinner rolls. But we do make fun of one another and laugh a lot.

I'd like to see public discourse do less yelling and roll-throwing and more laughing and empathizing. I'd like our punditry to reflect a baseline respect for getting at the truth, without all the ridicule and screaming.

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Philadelphia, PA: Tell us about one of the experiences that politicized you.

Jeremy Haber: I was a student in Atlanta during the 2002 mid-term elections and watched Saxby Chambliss and George Bush question the patriotism of Max Cleland, a triple amputee from Vietnam. I hope we demand more of our political discourse.

Courtney Martin: I studied abroad in South Africa in 2001 and some of our time there was spent designing and executing an independent project. I chose to teach poetry in a the high school in the township I was living in. I had Dangerous Minds-type visions of myself coming in, talking about protest poetry, fanning the flames of youth civic and art engagement--cue moving soundtrack music. It turned out that the wisest thing I did was invite a new friend, Melisizwe, to come along. He's grown up in the township and was doing local hip hop and poetry performing. While the kids respected me, they truly connected with Melisizwe. I learned that sometimes the most important political work we can is put other people in the right place at the right time and, well, shut up.

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Los Angeles, CA: So far, what has been the most difficult aspect of the competition for you, and if you are selected as the "pundit" of choice, what will be your biggest challenge? Finding topics to write about, or an interesting hang? Writing daily? Writing on short notice? Finding the right tone? Etc?

Courtney Martin: I found last week really difficult for logistical reasons. We were given instructions to blog, but not told how often or how much to post. I come from a blogging background where we post once an hour on our assigned day. As a result, I think I spent less time on each post and produced more, while my fellow pundits posted far less and produced more highly-edited content.

If chosen, I imagine that producing a great column each week would certainly be a challenge, but one I'm up for. I can imagine relying fairly heavily on my editor, especially in the beginning, to help me shape my pieces so that they pack a real rhetorical punch. I also think being up for public scrutiny all the time, while something I'm used to on a smaller scale, would be a challenge on such a widely-read platform.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Kevin,

Good job so far. How willing are you to be vulnerable to have your world turned upside down consistently. How will you ensure that you develop sufficiently different lenses through which to view the world that can make your punditry more meaningful to readers? How willing are you to take on your personal preferences (i.e. lenses of your view (or prejudices)) to enable you to be more relevant. How much change are you willing to embrace to be both honest with yourself as well as your readers in order to add value through your punditry? How will I know that I can trust this process (and, eventually, you)?

Good luck!! You show some great potential.

Kevin Huffman: Let me climb up on the couch and reflect!

Hopefully, pretty open. I read and enjoy a really wide range of writers: Kathleen Parker, Michael Gerson, David Brooks; EJ Dionne, Gail Collins. Andrew Sullivan and William Saletan. And two of my favorites, now deceased, with totally disparate perspectives - Michael Kelly and Molly Ivins.

In many ways, my very favorite writers make me question my assumptions and take a closer look. I'm committed to that, whether in this competition or just as an active citizen. So my attitude is good, hopefully I could actually execute.

Thanks for the kind words, too!

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Washington, DC: For any pundit-

Mainstream Media has been accused of bias. One contributing factor to this perception is pundits who cling to their view in the face of arguments that undermine their reasoning or facts that counter their assertions.

Since the perceived bias of the Washington Post is left, what specific arguments of conservative commentators have swayed you? Can you cite specific instances in which you have publicly reversed yourself in favor of a more conservative view?

Jeremy Haber: One of my favorite writers is Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly. He has spent a life-time traveling and writing from places no one else wants to go and is a big motivation for my own travels in India and Africa. I hardly agree with all of this opinions, but take to heart his call to first see the world as it is -- before considering how we want it to be.

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Skokie, Ill.: I would love for each contestant to briefly discuss:

1. What s/he's learned about punditry and writing since the contest began;

2. What s/he's learned about her/himself; and

3. What s/he intends to change going forward as the contest progresses.

Thank you.

Jeremy Haber: 1. Its hard. 2. Tough to have your ideas out in public, but I have enjoyed it. 3. Not sure what the next challenges are, but will try to work in my love for BBQ in somewhere.

Courtney Martin: 1. Punditry requires incredibly thick skin and the capacity to hear your own voice, even when others are critiquing its value.

2. I'm passionate and sometimes that makes me a target for folks who think I'm too idealistic or young. I had experienced that in other forums, but it was very evident during the last week when I really poured my heart into some of my blog posts. Some of the comments revealed that folks found that off putting, but that's just me.

3. As the contest progresses I hope to keep on keepin' on, supporting my fellow pundits voices, and learning as much as I can. I'm grateful to still be at the party.

Kevin Huffman: 1. On punditry, keep it focused. On writing, don't try too hard. There were a few individual lines that I wanted to take back 24 hours later - too obscure, too much of a stretch, etc.

2. About myself: I remembered how much I love to write. I do a ton of professional writing but got away from creative writing, and I love it - it's energizing.

3. I am trying to figure out how to bring the humor and the issue-driven writing together more neatly under one umbrella. Some of the most insightful political critiques I have seen come through a lens of humor (the late, great Molly Ivins, Jon Stewart, Gail Collins) and I am going to keep striving to find a balance.

Zeba Khan: Hi Skokie-

1. I've said this in a different question but there has been a huge learning curve about writing and punditry for me through this process which I am deeply appreciative of. I think I've learned that punditry takes a curious mind, and the wherewithal to form and opinion, be prepared to back it, but also be open to the consideration of new information that could alter your viewpoint. I think that is the marking of a good pundit.

2. As someone who hasn't really written for public consumption before, this has been a great experience. I've accepted that I can't please everyone with my opinions and that some people are bound to disagree and that's fine. As long as I'm c confident with my research and analysis, I feel like I am contributing to the conversation. That is my goal. The competition has given me more confidence in my writing ability and while I know I have much to learn and improve upon, I do see significant improvement just from Round 1 to Round 2 which makes me feel very encouraged about my ability to write something substantive and interesting under pressure. That too, is a new thing for me.

3. Should I be fortunate enough to proceed, I intend to listen to the feedback I'm getting from readers and the editors and work on sharing my voice with the readers. It's a new skill to me in terms of writing but I have confidence that I can improve on it.

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Summerland, Calif.: Thanks, Courtney Martin, for your thoughtful contributions to the pundit contest. In your first entry, you said, "I don't know a single young man who isn't committed to being an involved father someday." But parenting isn't for everyone, and neither is marriage. If you were to become the next great pundit, do you think such people (those who prefer not to follow the usual path through marriage and parenting) would have a place in your writings? My concern is that they are too often treated as if they do not exist or are not important, and I worry about the dampening effect of that on their political participation.

--Bella DePaulo, author of "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After"

Courtney Martin: Hi Bella, thanks for writing! In short, yes.

I have written previously on both the radical potential of love and the limits of many of our current ways of structuring and constricting it. Marriage, for one, is still a discriminatory institution, despite some good strides in the last few years. It also has a history of being blatantly misogynistic, of course. Does this mean it can't be transformed? No, but it does take a real commitment to original thinking and fierce self-awareness, not to mention political pressure and civic organizing.

With regards to the choice to have children or not, I totally agree that there isn't enough public dialogue. Though I, myself, am really excited to have kids some day, I will make every effort to remember that many people don't. I know that sometimes my own personal excitement comes out in my writing as bias, but I'm grateful to folks like you who remind me to include other voices.

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Greenbelt, Md.: What are your thoughts on the Isreali-Palestine problem?

Jeremy Haber: There is a leadership vacuum on both sides.

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washingtonpost.com: You may now vote for your favorite pundit. Thanks for chatting with them! They'll be on until 12:15pm.

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Old Town, Fla.: This is been fun for the readers but I know the final contestants are stressing about now. My question for each is, "What do you believe are your strongest and weakest areas of pundit--using our own definition of what a pundit is/does?"

Courtney Martin: My strength and my challenge is related. I'm a strong pundit because I have deep empathy and a rigorous mind--I like to really talk to people, weigh issues, look for the overlooked angle. But being someone who is so committed to seeing every side of a problem sometimes makes it difficult for me to make a straight-forward argument. I get stuck in the complexity of issues at time and find it difficult to wade out of the muck. That's why I am so grateful for all the good editors I've worked with over the years (Ann Friedman foremost among them!).

I also think I'm a strong pundit because I care so deeply. Some of my comments over the last week pegged that as "perky," but I actually think it's just evidence of my authentic commitment. I'm not a pundit because I want people to think I sound smart. I'm a pundit because I want the world to be more functional and just and I'd like to inspire other people to act towards that vision. That might sound cheesy, but that's where I'm at.

Jeremy Haber: weakness, I am not a natural writer, takes me ages and many, many drafts. hopefully by the end I have a cogent argument.

strength: I don't want to write a column from a comfy chair in my apartment. I will go out and get you a story you will not get anywhere else.

Zeba Khan: This competition has been just a huge learning experience for me. And even though I've read some pretty negative comments (and I do read all comments)- I can't be upset. Between the readers and the editor feedback, I am sharpening my writing and appreciate all the constructive feedback. I think my strength as a pundit is my ability to first, recognize that I am not an expert on everything under the sun but second, that I have the interest/curiosity to investigate topics I'm not familiar with, research and analyze and share that with readers. I think the aspect that I need to work on most has been touched on by the editors- namely, that I need to convey to readers my personal voice in the midst of my analysis.

Kevin Huffman: Strength: I have a lot of opinions, I'm a fast writer, when I'm on my game I think I keep my work interesting.

Weakness: sometimes pressing too hard, trying for an easy laugh that falls flat or misses the mark. I need to tighten up (or get an honest editor!).

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Alexandria, VA: Do you think the conspirators in the 9/11 attacks should be tried as criminals in civilian court or as prisoners of war in a military court? And why?

Kevin Huffman: Criminals in a civilian court. I think it shows our strength and our confidence. Let the rest of the world hear what they did, and let the world hear the defendants' pathetic attempts to rationalize it. Let them see 12 regular people with regular jobs (just like the people who lost their lives) listen seriously to the evidence and pronounce a verdict. We have nothing to hide and lots to gain. This is America and we do things the right way here.

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Waltham, Mass.: What is your wildcard topic of choice and why? Understandably, there have been lots of similar themes to a lot of the posts...politics & policy, education, social entrepreneurship, etc. What other topics would make you tick?

Courtney Martin: I think of myself as a sort of personal-is-political pundit. I love to write about gender, race, culture, approaches to social change, families etc. I'm also fascinated by the psychology of politics--why voters make the choices they do, how citizens interact (or don't) with their communities and why, how candidates' tell their stories to evoke emotions etc.

I've also gotten pretty obsessed with veteran's affairs lately, as you might have guessed from last round. I just can't get over that we send people into such excruciating circumstances and then don't take care of them as we should. I've been reading Good Soldiers this weekend and it's breaking my heart.

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Toledo, Ohio: Is Peace in Middle East possible in next 25 yrs.? How & Why?

Jeremy Haber: 25 years? I hope so. Why? because the population growth of Israeli Arabs could jeopardize Israel's identity as a Jewish state. How? No sure, but efforts to stimulate economic growth in Palestinian territories are a worthy start -- political process is a dead end, lets try some economic incentives.

Courtney Martin: I disagree with Jeremy here. I think that this region is so mired in conflict that economics will not be enough to save it. It requires a deep commitment, particularly on the part of the next generation, to compromise, to imagination, to letting go. I've had a lot of amazing conversations with a good friend of mine who spent last summer there doing community organizing (he's currently in divinity school). He wrote in an email, just this morning: "The 'major issues' (borders, Jerusalem, etc.) serve as cover for the conflict's source and heart: two narratives of national identity and two myths of national history that are not reconcilable."

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Pundits! Two part question here. Does the fact that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people are reading you affect what you write? And second: research shows that people tend to read the news and commentary that they agree with, and avoid what they don't agree with - something that has become easier and easier in the age of blogs, RSS feeds, and customized news; so, in such a balkanized commentary world, how do you avoid preaching to the choir?

Jeremy Haber: Well now it does, I thought this was just being read by our friends and family.

I think you identify an important aspect of consumer behavior regarding media, Cass Sunstein, among others have written smartly on this trend.

The best way to reach a broad audience, not sure but I bet being interesting and offering something new helps.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Zeba,

Great start of the article, but ultimately your post is dependent on personal responsibility of the individual citizen, an element that you don't really touch on. Software is reliant on that very element and the honesty and integrity of the individual. You seem to bemoan that government may not be the answer, but how can that, through the personal responsibility issue can be changed? Is twittering about the poll booth being open on time sufficient to address the full range of issues surrounding the integrity of the election process? I just felt like too much was missing. How will you change that to add depth?

Zeba Khan: Hi there - First, thanks for the feedback. I don't think twittering about the poll booth being open on time is sufficient to address the full range of issues surrounding the integrity of the election process. I think we need to have a discussion about a range of issues - the electoral college itself, etc. What technology can do and has done in other elections in other parts of the world is increase the ability for average citizens to do independent election monitoring which is just one of many issues we need to address.

In terms of relying on the integrity of the individual - technology is only reliant on the individual to a certain extent. Crowdsourcing allows for the possibility that there can be false reports. What happens though is that those reports tend to be isolated and if it's live reporting, it can be determined quickly whether that report is true or not, simply by whether for example, a number of other individuals at the same location are reporting the same thing or not. It certainly is not a perfect technology but we cant deny the it benefits and that why I suggest we start using it because I simply do not see the government, whatever party is in charge, taking the bold steps to correct the system.

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Skokie, Ill.: Kevin hit the nail on the head regarding Q&A. Keep answers short. More questions can get asked...happier audience.

Why should I vote for you next round? Twitter length response, please.

Kevin Huffman: I need yr vote pls zeba is bcmng a jggrnt.

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Question for Courtney: Hi Courtney,

Many commenters are hailing you as a new, much needed feminist voice. I agree that we need more feminist perspectives represented in the mainstream media. My question for you is this: what makes you the best choice to be that new addition, rather than a feminist writer/blogger with more experience? What unique perspective or voice will you contribute that is not already out there?

Courtney Martin: Wow, I'm flattered. I'm in a unique position for a number of reasons. I'm from Colorado Springs, so I didn't grow up in the east coast bubble, but I now live in Brooklyn with all the cultural and intellectual access that affords. I was raised by two feminists--a mother who started the longest running women's film festival in the world and a father who refused to be part of the all-male business club in my hometown. I am now a part of an amazing community of young, diverse feminists (Feministing.com), as well as in constant dialogue with the women who blazed the way for me at places like the Women's Media Center and the Journalism & Women's Symposium.

All of this is to say, I'm young, but not that young. I'm progressive, but in touch with people of diverse ideological points of view. I'm experienced, but not jaded. And I'm deeply committed. Does that make me THE best feminist for the job? No, not necessarily. But if given the honor, I'll do my best to speak courageously to the issues that affect women's and men's lives.

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Tralfamad, Ore.: Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post wrote on his blog "I still feel bad that I said mean things about those pundit contestants simply because some of their stuff was so dreadful. "

Do you accept his apology or escalate this to a rap-war beef?

Kevin Huffman: I don't know, it ended badly for Biggie and I'm in the same town as Achenbach. You know, Eminem said it best in Toy Soldiers: I'll walk away from it all before I let it go any further/But don't get it twisted, it's not a plea that I'm coppin.'

That's for all my soldiers out there - leave Achenbach alone!

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Who is your favorite pundit, and why?

Jeremy Haber: I am biased on this one having worked for one of the best in the business.

Beyond my former boss, I am big fan of Nick Kristof's writing. Think he consistently adds a unique voice to the public debate -- and I have learned how hard that is to do!

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Boston: Do you support investigating other Muslims in the military to see if they have the same beliefs as Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan? If not, why?

Zeba Khan: I support investigating any Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Atheist soldier who like Hasan, demonstrates erratic behaviour and is desperately trying to get out of serving.

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Courtney Martin: Wow, what a way to start the week. Thanks for all the great questions folks and thanks to my fellow pundits. Take the rest of the day off kids! You've earned it.

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Jeremy Haber: This has been fun! Thanks for all the questions. I'm gonna go watch the 4th and 2 play another 6 times.

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Kevin Huffman: This was the wild west of punditry today. Thanks for the thoughtful questions, there were lots of juicy ones we couldn't get to - sorry about that. And many thanks for the ideas, thoughts, constructive criticism - keep it coming! Peace.

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Zeba Khan: Just a quick thank you to everyone for participating and continuing to read our pieces. For myself, I hope that I've been able to provide you with posts that are informative and provide a different and new perspective from what you normally read. I'll try my best to continue to listen to your feedback and strengthen my writing. Regardless of what ends up happening in this competition- I couldn't be more thrilled for the very opportunity to interact with so many people from all over the country. All the Best, Zeba

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washingtonpost.com: Don't forget to vote for your favorite pundit now!

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