In an election year marked by high drama and surprises, political pundits become must-see TV

by Cary Darling

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

21 October 2008

Chuck Todd, MSNBC 

Charges of celebrity and rock-star royalty have arced through the 2008 presidential election like lightning in a spring downpour. But it’s not just the candidates who’ve morphed from pols to players.

A new breed of media star has exploded into its own in this year’s ballot-box drama: the cable-TV pundit.

No, this isn’t about the big-shot, big-time hosts, whether they be Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on the right, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann on the left, or CNN’s Anderson Cooper trying to glide down the center. Instead, it’s about those whom they gather around their electronic campfires; those who enchant them (and us) with tales of tracking polls, pit bulls, pumas and mysterious, faraway lands called battleground states.

A who’s who of the power players of political punditry Turn on the news channels, and you can’t escape them. It’s like surfing a wave of analysis. Here are some of the ones to watch: John King, CNN—Billed as the network’s chief national correspondent, he’s best known to viewers as one thing: the Wizard of Aahs who controls the Magic Wall. His state-of-the art, interactive national election map—technically called the Multi-Touch Collaboration Wall—is a mesmerizing piece of technology that sometimes seems to send King into a state of hypnotic, electoral bliss. Chuck Todd, MSNBC - It’s almost like the political news director is a rapper: “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough calls him Chucky T, and fans can buy Todd T-shirts, mugs and clocks online. But instead of slinging rhymes, he rocks the mic with stats. Take that, Soulja Boy. Amy Holmes, CNN—According to the network site, the former speechwriter for then-Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist is a registered independent, but she gives voice to a brand of knowledgeable conservatism that has made her welcome on a variety of shows, ranging from “Bill Maher” and “The View” to her former gig as a contributor to Fox News. Karl Rove, Fox News—Even those who don’t like the politics of President Bush’s former chief strategist admit his views can offer some insight. “He’s an expert tactician,” says Jeff Cohen, an Ithaca College journalism associate professor and author of “Cable News Confidential.” Still, you’re probably not going to find Rove and Keith Olbermann as Facebook friends anytime soon. Roland Martin, CNN—The Texas-raised Martin—who still spends much of the year in Dallas—is a multitasker. The former Star-Telegram reporter has a radio show out of Chicago’s WVON-AM and writes books (“Speak, Brother! A Black Man’s View of America”). But his most visible gig is on CNN panels where others might want to accuse him of many things, but being a wallflower would not be one of them. Rachel Maddow, MSNBC—A breakout star from many stints on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” she now has her own nightly program on the same network. Combined with her Air America radio show, she has become one of the best-known liberal voices in a relatively short amount of time. And, like Todd, she has fan sites as well. Ed Rollins, CNN—The well-known Republican strategist who ran Mike Huckabee’s campaign never gets excited or raises his voice, even when he’s veering from party talking points. In a medium full of blowhards and hotheads, that deserves some respect. TALK LIKE A PUNDIT All of the high priests of punditry use certain phrases and words that have been repeated like Buddhist chants through this election cycle. If you play an eating game and pop in a salty snack food every time you hear one of these, you’ll have a nice raging case of high blood pressure by Election Day. At the end of the day Battleground states Knock it out of the park Game-changer Outlier Wall Street Main Street Scranton Wasilla Hockey moms Latte liberals Joe Six-Pack Tina Fey

Of course, pundits—or “political analysts” as they prefer—have been around a long time. But in a year when, as Broadcasting & Cable magazine noted in the spring, cable-news viewership is up (58 percent for CNN, 46 percent for MSNBC, and 19 percent for traditional ratings-leader Fox) and candidates’ convention speeches can corral nearly 40 million viewers and a vice presidential debate can lure 70 million, these talking heads are gaining a wider audience.

CNN’s John King has become something of a media sensation thanks to his brightly colored electoral map dubbed “the Magic Wall.” He has even earned such nicknames as “the wall magician” and “chairman of the board.”

MSNBC’s Chuck Todd now has fan sites—such as Chuckolyte and Viva Chuck Todd—devoted to all things Todd, all the time. (He now has his own snazzy, interactive map, though when an MSNBC rep was asked if it had a cool name like CNN’s, the best the spokesman could offer was “Microsoft Surface.”)

This season, three of these analysts have been given their own soapboxes: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow hosts her self-named show on the network weeknights at 9, while over at CNN, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett and Roland Martin have hosted special reports.

Fox has hired Karl Rove, President Bush’s controversial former deputy chief of staff, to critique and summarize the election.

The networks certainly aren’t surprised that the analysts are becoming attractions in their own right.

“This is an unprecedented election,” says Bill Wolff, MSNBC’s prime-time programming vice president. “It’s unbelievably dramatic and unpredictable. No one could have predicted the rise of (Barack) Obama, the demise of (Hillary) Clinton, the return of (John) McCain, the fizzle of (Fred) Thompson and (Rudy) Giuliani. No one could have predicted the latest thing, Sarah Palin. Not only is it unprecedented in the (viewer) figures but in terms of drama and surprise. It’s been an unbelievable story for people to follow, and they turn to folks like Chuck (Todd).”

All analysts aren’t created equal.

Some are on staff. Others are brought in as independent voices.

Some, like Todd and King, came to fame through their current TV incarnation. Others—such as Juan Williams (Fox), Jonathan Capehart (MSNBC), Jeffrey Toobin (CNN) and Martin—first made their mark in print journalism. (Martin worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in the ‘90s). Still others come from the online world, from such news/opinion sites as Politico, Huffingtonpost, Townhall, and Salon.

Many, though, come directly from politics and government, ranging from Fox’s Rove and CNN’s Amy Holmes (former speechwriter to retired Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Frist) on the right to CNN’s Donna Brazile (former campaign manager for Al Gore) and the same network’s James Carville (former senior political adviser to President Clinton) on the other side. (With the exception of an occasional guest like Ralph Nader or Ron Paul, there’s little representation of views outside the mainstream.)

But there are some attributes the networks seek out in all of them. “We look for people who’ve had experience, who know what they’re talking about, who may have run campaigns or have been in and out of government,” says CNN political director Sam Feist. “But we also want people who aren’t predictable; people who can discuss an issue and surprise viewers by their perspective.”

“We want people who have lived through stuff,” says MSNBC’s Wolff. “(Hardball host) Chris Matthews and (analyst) Pat Buchanan—these guys wrote speeches. James Carville at CNN, Dick Morris and Karl Rove at Fox—they’ve (worked in politics).”

(Fox representatives declined to comment for this story).

The networks also eye one another’s analysts, checking out the competition. “You see the folks on the competition and wonder if they’re available,” says Wolff. “John Harwood comes (to us) from CNBC. All of the information-cable outlets have really good people. So you’re eyeing their good ones and protecting your good ones.”

Almost as important is that the analysts need to be available to put in long days and nights, especially at peak times such as the conventions or the debates. Sometimes it seems as if the network keeps them on a shelf in a backroom and hauls them out to trot around the morning, afternoon and evening news shows.

“We try to manage that because we don’t want to overexpose them,” says Wolff. “(But) all the (MSNBC) shows love to use these folks so we have to try and manage who gets whom. We try not to run these guys in the ground, but the hours that people are logging are outstanding.

“Pat (Buchanan) is on at least two different shows. (Recently) Pat substitute-hosted on ‘Morning Joe’ from 6 to 9 a.m., did either the David Gregory or Chris Matthews show, and did Rachel Maddow at 9:45. That’s 15 hours. And he co-hosted ‘Morning Joe’ the next day.”

“There are very few times when I really can’t do it,” says Martin of his CNN appearances. “When you’re traveling, if you can get to a satellite, you can do it from anywhere.”

Of course, many of these analysts aren’t putting in all these hours yapping about the blood sport of politics simply for the love of the game. Some get paid quite well. “Some analysts are on a per appearance fee, some might make $300-$500 a shot and it goes up from there. Some get $1,000 a shot,” says Wolff. “Some get a yearly salary, and they don’t make as much as anchor people but they do pretty well.”

While the pundits might have more viewers these days, not all of those watching are happy. Some media critics charge this new generation of analysts is much more interested in adding to the cultural cacophony than cutting through the clutter, that it’s less about politics as reality than politics as reality TV.

“It’s mostly static and noise,” dismisses Jeff Cohen, author of the book “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media” and an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College, where he founded the Park Center for Independent Media. He also founded the media watchdog group FAIR, is a former producer of Phil Donahue’s MSNBC prime-time show, and has been a guest on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC news shows.

“Most of what the pundits discuss is irrelevant to what voters need to know ... All (the pundits) know is tactics. They give you all this analysis of ... what these candidates are doing to win and often it’s inaccurate. This year, it’s reached a new low,” he says. “It’s horse racing. If you want to cover horse races, move to sports. If you want to cover fashion, move to the style pages. If you want to cover society, which is what they’ve turned politics into, move to the gossip pages. They insist on reducing who’s going to run our country to celebrity, tactics and horse racing. It’s a disservice.

“Once you get into the (pundits) club, it’s very hard to be ejected. They say the same things, go as a herd and take themselves over a cliff. They were wrong about Hillary, Obama and McCain, and we’re supposed to pretend these people ... aren’t discredited? It’s beyond belief. I’ve always felt that if they had fresher voices and tougher journalism, they’d have bigger ratings.”

Ken Collier, associate professor in the department of government at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, says the networks’ mind-set is propelled by their core viewers. “One of the problems with the news right now is that the news junkies watch the news,” he says. “These people made up their minds (whom to vote for) back in January. What they want to know is who’s ahead, who’s behind.”

CNN’s Feist thinks the criticism if off-base. “We have worked very hard to focus on issues,” he says. “We work very hard to give viewers a chance to hear the candidates.”

“We do the horse race and it’s compelling and everyone wants to know who’s ahead,” acknowledges MSNBC’s Wolff. “But the sober analysis and the amount of time everybody spends on issues and the substance of what people say is probably greater than it has been portrayed by critics.”

Certainly not all media watchers are negative. Allan Saxe, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, admits he likes the cable-news pundit class.

“I watch them all,” he says. “They do bring in statistical information about the states McCain or Obama may need to break down the polling information that is useful to me.”

For all the broadcast reach of the new pundits, they might still pale in influence to those of generations ago.

“Will Rogers was more powerful than presidents, than newspapers, than anybody who spoke out on politics,” says history professor Jerry Rodnitzky of the University of Texas at Arlington of the legendary actor/commentator from the early 20th century. “He had a great following.”

Still, that hasn’t stopped the current generation from getting the star treatment. “At airports, it’s crazy with all these people who were stopping me for autographs in Denver and St. Paul,” recalls Martin. “The reality is that people are paying attention and people are coming to you who work at shoeshine stands, barbershops or convenience stores and want to pick your brain over this and that in the campaign. It’s been phenomenal in that regard.

“When folks start quoting things you’ve said, you know people are paying attention.”

//Mixed media