Part 1—The creatures on the ark: In yesterday's Washington Post Sunday Magazine, Paul Farhi finally went there.
Farhi wrote an introductory essay, an essay which should have been written long ago. He discussed the taxonomy and the culture of Washington's pundit class.
As always, taxonomy first! Farhi sketched it thusly, even including pay scales:
FARHI (6/5/16): After the campaign started and the pundits started yakking, ratings for all three cable networks, once in seemingly terminal decline, rebounded to nearly Iraq-War levels. There are now so many cable pundits—CNN has about 100 on its payroll, while MSNBC and Fox declined to provide numbers—that it’s hard to tell them apart.Farhi notes that he has occasionally appeared as a cable news "guest." So have we, long ago, when we did, among other spots, one Crossfire, six O'Reillys, one Diane Rehm and three separate hours on C-Span's Washington Journal, including the time when a window-washer suddenly appeared directly behind us, swinging erratically on a board precariously held by ropes.
Some pundits are “contributors.” Some are “analysts.” Still others are “commentators” or “strategists.”
The secret pundit decoder works like this: A “contributor” (such as Meghan McCain) is an exclusive network hireling who gets paid for his or her sound bites. He or she earns a fee for each appearance or a flat amount for being on call, like a firefighter, whenever his or her services are required. The amounts can range from around $150 per “hit” to the mid-six figures for a marquee name such as Karl Rove or David Axelrod, both former campaign savants and presidential advisers. An “analyst” (such as CNN’s David Gergen or David Gregory, the former host of “Meet the Press”) is a salaried or contract employee who is expected to analyze the day’s Narrative rather than opine about it like a contributor. A “strategist” is usually a part-timer and a partisan hired for his or her political experience and insight.
Not that these rules really matter. Analysts contribute opinions, contributors analyze and strategists do both.
Then there are “guests,” Punditstan’s temporary-worker class. Guests typically aren’t paid, and often aren’t even identified as guests.
("It only would happen on Bob Somerby's program," Brian Lamb appreciatively said at the 41-minute mark. Later, we kicked ourselves for our slow reaction. Covering our notes, we should have said this: "Do you really think that's a window-washer?")
Just to be completely clear: Presumably, Farhi meant that pundit pay ranges from "$150 per hit" (per appearance) to "mid-six figures" as an annual salary.
Not that it really matters. As Farhi notes, nothing we'd normally think of as rules seems to apply within this highly Manchurian realm.
Farhi hadn't yet completed his basic pundit taxonomy. A bit later, he continued to name the various beasts of the field who file up the ramp and onto the cable news ark:
FARHI: CNN has pioneered another variation on the theme during this election season: the “supporter.” Last year, it hired two commentators to defend Trump, Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany (Scottie Hughes, another Trump supporter, is a frequent CNN guest). It has also had a Bernie Sanders booster (Jonathan Tasini), one for Ted Cruz (Amanda Carpenter), one for Jeb Bush (Ana Navarro) and multiple ones for Hillary Clinton. Poor John Kasich; no one on CNN was paid to spin for him.In that passage, Farhi names our current favorite "supporter," Kayleigh McEnany. We like her for what seems to be a genuinely mellow disposition and for the reason why she's so frequently on the air.
The taxonomy of punditry can be further subdivided by background and personality. There are former campaign operatives and party hacks (Nicolle Wallace and Rick Tyler on MSNBC, Paul Begala and Donna Brazile on CNN, Rove on Fox), lifelong journalists (The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson on MSNBC) and even a lapsed politician or two (Michael Steele and Joe Scarborough on MSNBC). Yes, there’s a certain credentialism at work; the average dentist or truck driver, no matter how brilliant or witty his or her opinions, has no chance of ever moving to Punditstan. And there are, of course, degrees of temperament and vehemence: A rigorously nonpartisan analyst such as CNN’s Gloria Borger rarely throws bombs while others (think Fox News’s Andrea Tantaros) have crafted a career out of lobbing them.
In naming Scarborough, he even flirts with extending his taxonomy to the realm of cable news hosts. Our guess:
That is a place to which no paid journalist, not even Farhi, will ever be willing to go. You will never see a paid journalist discuss the work of Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow or Anderson Cooper. As we've told you again and again, it simply isn't done.
(In the case of Matthews, that bit of law has been demonstrated by the silence extended to his routinely crazy work down through the past twenty years—the same silence which has been extended to the work of Maureen Dowd. By their silence, the press corps has made it clear that they observe a professional code of silence. In turn, we liberals have made it clear that we're too hypnotized, and too compliant, to see through this ongoing scam.)
There's more of interest in Farhi's piece than we've mentioned today. For ourselves, we were most amused by his report that CNN now "has about 100 [pundits] on its payroll."
No one who has watched that channel could be surprised by that census count. CNN now features extremely large pundit panels—and these panels will change in the course of an hour, in the manner of an NHL team changing lines on the fly.
We've mentioned hypnosis, and Manchuria, for a reason.
This morning, we watched what may have been the worst segment of Morning Joe we have ever seen. We actually thought we were seeing new peak Morning Joe.
To our ear, the phoniness exceeded past peak Morning Joe. The dumbness exceeded even Trump, who is now being savaged to an extent which surpasses the way he was fawned over, lionized, on that same ridiculous program not too long ago.
We've also marveled, over the weekend, at much of the punditry concerning the death of Muhammad Ali. For our money, Josh and Judis may have taken the cake, but the phony adherence to silly-bill script was widespread, sad, typical, faux.
(To state the obvious: As is routinely the case at such times, these script-readings are often designed to enhance the position and status of the pundit, not to inform people about the life and times of the historical figure in question—in this case, the life and times of the widely-admired Ali.)
For ourselves, we watched Chinatown over the weekend. We then returned to the first half of The Manchurian Candidate, with its relentless theme of hypnosis, brainwashing and self-hypnosis.
For our previous post on the 1962 film, just click here.
Are we all Manchurian now? Each film offers a portrait of massive political corruption and dysfunction. For our money, The Manchurian Candidate blew Chinatown away this weekend as a portrait of these ridiculous times.
We keep encountering ludicrous work from all parts of the pundit ark. Are we all Manchurian now? With brief returns to Farhi's text, we'll examine that question all week.
Tomorrow: A major pundit seems to loathe the so-called white working-class