Respond to this Article June 2000

Substance Abuse

Faking, flubbing, and cramming with the media's talking heads

By Alexandra Robbins

It's a drill that veterans of the Washington press corps know all too well. The booker from a highly-regarded talk show calls you four hours before air time. They're doing a story on the turmoil in Zimbabwe. Could you help them out? You're not 100 percent sure where Zimbabwe is but, what the hell, it's a chance to be on TV. You tell her you'll do it, grab the Times, reach for the Atlas, and start to cram.

And what if you don't get it all sorted out before your views are broadcast into 20 million homes? You won't be the first. "I don't want to embarrass anybody, but sometimes people come in here and they're not quite ready," talk-show host Diane Rehm says carefully. Walk into the "communication room" minutes before Rehm goes on the air with her Friday "News Round Up" and you will see some of Washington's top journalists poring over the day's papers, speaking urgently into their cell phones, and doing whatever else they can to get the latest word on Rehm's discussion topics. But sometimes Rehm introduces late breaking topics, and sometimes her guests just can't get up to speed in time. In those cases, Rehm says that "Reporters will wing it with the Times or the Post or the Wall Street Journal sitting in front of them." When one of Rehm's guests recently blanked on a question, a co-panelist gave an assist by handing over a newspaper article on the subject.

If we've gotten to the stage where talk show guests are pretty much reading the newspaper into the mic, it seems fair enough to ask---what's the point of these programs? Amazingly enough, a big part of the answer is "public service." The talk show formula has been developed in part to satisfy the Federal Communications Commission's requirement that all TV- and radio-broadcast networks air a certain quota of programming that offers "significant treatment of community issues." But the pace, format, and substance of these shows don't allow for a significant treatment of anything. That's fine with the networks; they're happy enough to have a cheap and easy vehicle for parading celebrity journalists. And judging by the level of participation, it's fine with the journalists as well, who are happy to have a vehicle for enhancing their fame and padding their bank accounts. As Washington Post media watchdog Howard Kurtz points out in his book Hot Air, journalists who join the punditocracy generally see their lecture fees spike up by thousands of dollars. Moreover, some of the shows pay their guests and many reporters even receive bonuses from their publicity-happy employers for each time they make a talk show appearance---regardless of whether they say anything worth hearing.

Prepping

Of course, given a choice, most journalists would rather be able to get through a show without having to resort to the sort of on-air tactics that Rehm has observed. So after they've been called by enough bookers, talk show regulars tend to develop preparation strategies that can be applied to a wide range of topics, and that can be successfully employed in less than twenty-four hours---which is the maximum amount of notice that most shows give of their discussion topics.

There are a couple of sources that talk show regulars cite as absolutely indispensable. When the Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson gets called for a TV appearance, he jokes that he briefly consults his own "vast realm of knowledge" and then, like everybody else, he reads the Hotline. The National Journal's Hotline, a conglomeration of capital commentary, is daily required reading for journalists who want to stay on top of the latest government gossip or collect clever catch phrases they can pass off as relatively new. But what passes for new to the outside-the-Beltway public can tend to sound somewhat warmed over to the home crowd. "The echo is deafening," Carlson says. Hotline's widely-used digest feature, which groups together pithy journalistic remarks on hot topics, reinforces the echo effect. Carlson says, "People look at the digest of cable comments to come up with comments to say on cable. It's like plagiarizing yourself."

Although newspaper and magazine clippings supply pundits with most of their cramming material, those who want their views to sound particularly fresh, original, or well-informed, may go one step further and seek counsel from experts in government, academics, and the press. While this sounds refreshingly like old-fashioned journalism, it isn't necessarily. Big name pundits may come to rely so extensively on one or two experts that the latter can build a second career on the relationship.

So after looking over the Hotline, and studying clips from the major papers and newsweeklies, and consulting one's guru, what's next? This is where things can get a bit idiosyncratic. David Brooks, whose recent book on "bourgeois bohemians" was reviewed in this magazine last month, says that he prepares for his appearances by examining the half-dozen potential conversation subjects and writing his thoughts down to organize them. Then, he transcribes his organized thoughts onto blue sheets of paper, which he brings with him on to the set. "It has to be blue because at the "News Hour" they use blue paper," he explains. "If the major leagues are going to do blue paper, then I'm going to do blue paper." (In fact, the "News Hour" has a practical reason for using blue paper: It cuts down glare.)

For some topics, however, neither the Hotline nor gurus nor blue-paper crib sheets are necessary. Time columnist Margaret Carlson (no relation to the Standard's Tucker), a panelist on "The Capital Gang," waxes nostalgic about the year the impeachment scandal dominated the airwaves. "Any fool could talk about Ken Starr, sex, Monica and Linda Tripp," she says. "It was like having a substitute teacher for an entire year."

Faking

Even if he prepares with great diligence, a talk show guest always takes the risk that he will be asked a question about which he knows nothing. And if there aren't any useful newspapers lying around the set, he may be left with two unattractive choices: Faking it or admitting ignorance. "The people who have zero information and fake it are doing themselves and the public a disservice," says former "Late Edition" host Frank Sesno. But journalists tend to dislike the appearance of ignorance and may be concerned that it will keep them from being asked back. So faking is always an option.

For example, New York Times writer Adam Nagourney once appeared on a talk show while he was covering local politics for the New York Daily News. In the midst of a political discussion, the host turned to ask a horrified Nagourney, "What do you think about the resignation of Gorbachev?" When Nagourney attempted the first catch-all answer that came to mind--- "In the long run, it will be a footnote in history"---the other guest pounced. The experience was so distasteful that Nagourney has since sworn off even watching talk shows. He explains: "I would sit there and think, 'I know these people socially, and I know they are really good at what they do, but I'm not interested in hearing them talk about something they know nothing about.' That goes for me too. Why in the world would anyone care what I thought about turmoil in the Soviet Union?"

Certain issues are more difficult than others. The unofficial pundit consensus is that the most formidable discussion topics are technical ones like health care (says Brooks: "If I don't pay any attention to health care, then I'll have enough brain space for 20 other topics") and, as Nagourney can testify, foreign affairs. It's just plain hard to riff authoritatively on the situation on the ground halfway around the world when your normal beat rarely takes you out of the lower 48. "Kosovo presented quite a dilemma," says Tucker Carlson. "It's easy when you can say îI just came back from New Hampshire with Gore.' You can't say, 'I was just manning a tank in Kosovo.'"

Lack of firsthand reporting experience also makes screw ups more likely when discussion topics revolve around non-English terms. Newsweek's Howard Fineman was once a guest on Rehm's show when he discovered that he had a mortifying inability to "keep the Hutus and Tutsis straight." Fortunately, one of his co-panelists was Martin Walker, the Washington bureau chief of The Guardian (an English newspaper), who valiantly leapt in and carried the discussion. Walker was something of an expert in the region, having done firsthand reporting in Rwanda, but Fineman recalls that "it was still like being in the back of the class at law school where you keep your head down and hope you're not called on."

Echoing these observations, Margaret Carlson suggests that pundits would do well to imitate a Christmas tradition reportedly practiced by writer Calvin Trillin and his wife, Alice. Each year the Trillins give each other a word wrapped in a box: When one year Mr. Trillin gave his wife the word "Iran," that meant for the entire year, he had to handle all dinner-party discussions about Iran. "By the same token," Carlson laughs, "I would love to do 'Capital Gang' where I'm given the Balkans as a gift, so I could let the Balkans go for that year."

But until that practice becomes commonplace, most experienced journalists find it helpful to have a standardized approach to stump-the-band questions. Tucker Carlson summarizes his in one word: "Themes." If a question goes to a specific point that leaves him grasping, Carlson moves to a higher level of generality. Adam Nagourney suggests either deflection (say: "Honestly, I'm not the best person to ask about that.") or what he calls "the politician's way" (say: "That's a really interesting question."---then you answer a different one). Former host Sesno prefers to be more straightforward. "If I don't know the answer, I'll say 'I don't know,'" he says. "I would rather look stupid than be wrong."

A confession of ignorance may also prevent certain hosts from attacking. Sesno says hosts can tell when reporters are winging it because "they go into boiler-plate mode with talking points." In response, Sesno says, "I bear down. It's the spirit of the hunt." When guests insist on stonewalling him, Sesno rephrases his question and asks it another few times. (Tucker Carlson, take note.)

Flubbing

While most good talk show guests can wing it without too much embarrassment most of the time, there are situations when no amount of faking can help. During one taping of "The Capital Gang," Margaret Carlson recalls being flummoxed when Bob Novak shouted at her: "What's the due bill on that? What's the due bill on that?" during a conversation about Al Gore. Novak wanted to know what kind of leverage environmentalists might have over Gore on a particular issue, but Carlson didn't follow. She paused while she tried to figure out which policy the 'dew bill' addressed. "I'm told it is the only time I ever looked like Dan Quayle. I didn't know where to go or what was going on," Carlson says. She was saved by commercials. "Time ran out," she says. "I was so relieved."

Other personalities aren't so lucky. Tucker Carlson cringes at "a meltdown" he had on a defunct chat show. Carlson's preparation for the program's conversation about Newt Gingrich consisted of consuming a beer and a gargantuan cheeseburger. When the host asked him what he thought about Newt Gingrich being Man of the Year, all the brain-numbed reporter could say was "That's a very good question" over and over again. The host mockingly responded, "Tell us what you really think." The gaffe would have been much less conspicuous had the question not been the kind of softball that guests generally covet because they can then spin the conversation in any given direction. "It was like in ninth grade when you have a zit and you think the whole world is watching, and then you think, no, everyone isn't watching you, but then you realize that your first instinct was right," Carlson says. "They sent me a tape to rub it in. My brother invited people over just to have drinks and replay it."

Even worse than saying nothing is making a glaring error. In those cases, purists like Nina Totenberg say that the only acceptable way for a pundit to recover is to own up in the clearest possible terms. Totenberg once claimed on the air that a certain Senator had been convicted of a crime when he had merely been indicted. She apologized on the next show. "We're flying by the seat of our pants," she says. "I don't know what I meant to say but it came out of my mouth. You can say things without meaning to."

Worst of all, the occasional guest is actually held accountable for a prediction he made in a previous appearance. In the first term of the Clinton administration, frequent guest Andrew Ferguson made the mistake of predicting for the cameras that the President's tax increase would break the back of the economy. Several years later, when Ferguson appeared on the same show spouting a positive view of the economy, the host reminded him of the forecast. "Sirens screamed," Ferguson later wrote in The Weekly Standard. "My host was violating the fundamental rule of TV punditry. The guest gives pithy answers of rock-solid certitude. The host agrees never again to mention what those answers are."

But, a good host also recognizes that viewers need a little bit of cringe-producing drama to keep them interested, and will do what it takes to create it. Jon Stewart, who runs his own light-hearted news show on Comedy Central, compares the shows to auto racing:

"These shows are like NASCAR races. They go around the track, they go around the track. It's kind of boring, but every now and again one of them flies off the track into the stands. Everybody likes watching that. You're just waiting for them to go red in the face and pop out of their chair and go, 'You don't know what you're talking about!'"

Stewart cites as proof the evolution of the names for pundit programming. "It used to be "Meet the Press." Now look at the names of the shows---"Hardball," "Crossfire." They might as well call it Deathmatch 2000."

The Pundit's Creed

If Deathmatch 2000 does not quite sound like the name for a public service program, then it's no coincidence. These shows are not about much beyond celebrity, egos, and the friction that these two ingredients can create. The possibility of a bunch of know-it-alls duking it out for the last word gets us to tune in. The prospect of the last word being entirely ridiculous keeps us watching. And given the way the shows are structured and journalists prepare, that's always a realistic prospect. Consider Totenberg's early introduction to punditry: "When I first started doing the show, I used to worry about not knowing a lot, so I'd cram. I'd read the spots off the newspapers. I remember sitting there before a show on the Middle East saying I wasn't going to talk too much because I didn't know much about it." But fellow panelist Charles Krauthammer cut her off by neatly summarizing the pundit's creed.

"Well," he said. "That doesn't stop the rest of us."

Alexandra Robbins works in the Washington, D.C. office of The New Yorker.


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