The Great Pundit Purge

by Jonah Goldberg

CNN has cut Donna Brazile loose from her gig at CNN. Full disclosure, I’ve known Brazile for years – we started out at CNN together – and I’ve always liked her and respected her. But I also think that if the allegations are accurate, CNN had no choice but to do what it did.

Now, with that out of the way, Jack Shafer over at Politico uses the Brazile development to make a much broader argument: Purge them all! He writes:

Her deceit reveals an ugly aspect of news talk that will probably go unremedied as Brazile is tarred and feathered by the ethics cops: That is, the whole show-business concept that places paid partisan yakkers on television is corrupt and venal and deserves burial in a shallow grave. The yakkers populate the news shows not because they add much in the way of substance to our political knowledge, but because they’re a cheap form of on-air talent for television’s 24/7 programming needs, and television has been over-relying on them for a long time. A partial list of notable politicians or political operators who’ve worked their way into TV includes Tim Russert, Bill Bradley, George Stephanopoulos, Joe Scarborough, Van Jones, William Safire, James Carville, Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany, Pat Buchanan, Rick Santorum, Paul Begala, David Gergen, Chris Matthews, Peggy Noonan, Sarah Palin, Jennifer Granholm, David Axelrod, Tony Blankley, Mary Matalin, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Mike Huckabee, John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer and Corey Lewandowski.

TV hires these people and their ilk not for their spellbinding political insights but because they’re known quantities who will provide safe and predictable idle talk. By dividing their partisan contributors between Republicans and Democrats, TV creates the illusion of impartiality and inclusion. The contributors take the job because it’s easy—anybody can fill the air with platitudes and generalization, and all that face-time makes them more marketable on the lecture circuit. Working as a paid pundit is such a good deal, the contributors tend to conform to the expectations of the producers putting on the show. They hit their marks, fill the dead spaces with palaver, keep the commercials from bumping into one another, and sit at attention until called on—or interrupt should the show stall.

Now I agree with a lot of this when it comes to some people and not at all when it comes to others, and that’s a sure sign – to me at least — that Shafer is firing too broadly. For instance, Bill Safire may have once been a political operative, but I don’t think it’s fair to list him alongside say, Al Sharpton or Corey Lewandowksi. Sharpton is first and foremost an activist, huckster and operator. Last I checked, Lewandowski was still on the payroll of the Trump campaign. Safire could be great and he could be annoying, but he wasn’t in the tank for a candidate or a party.

I do think it says something interesting and important that former Democratic operatives have a much easier time migrating into not opinion journalism but supposedly objective journalism. But, that’s a topic for another day. Still, as with Safire, I don’t think it would be fair to compare the late Tim Russert or George Stephanopoulos to, say, Paul Begala.

And that’s the first important distinction. Having a past in politics shouldn’t disqualify you from sharing your opinions on TV.  But it would be best if that past was, you know, in the past. Green rooms are full of people playing pundit on TV who are really just carrying water for their party or partisan faction with the talking points of the day.

If you still work for the party or one of its paper-tiger fronts or if you work for a SuperPAC helping a candidate, by all means go on TV. But don’t pretend you’re a dispassionate analyst. More than once I’ve talked to supposedly independent party-hacks-turned-pundits who, when the camera is off, said something like “You’re obviously right. But I couldn’t have possibly have said that on-air.” This happens on both sides of the ideological aisle.

(This is has been an ancient gripe of mine, though it happens much, much less at Fox these days. I hate debating party operatives or “Democratic consultants” because their job is to repeat talking points, advance messaging and generally please their clients. At least liberal and conservative opinion journalists tend to take their own positions on the issues of the day.).

Then there’s the opposite problem. If green rooms are full of party hacks pretending to be pundits, they’re outright infested with wannabe pundits pretending to be party hacks. Among actual political consultants on the left and the right there’s widespread consternation about, and mockery of, all of these young Republican and Democratic “consultants” that no one in the business has heard of. Have they run a campaign? Worked on one? Who knows?

Let me be clear: It would be great for me if the folks at Fox and elsewhere followed Shafer’s advice and banned anyone who ever worked in politics from ever again stealing airtime from us lowly pundits. But that would be a disservice to some of them, and to many of the viewers. I don’t think Shafer is right that they are all banal air-fillers. Evan Bayh? Sure. But Karl Rove and Joe Trippi provide real insight and substance. So does David Axelrod.  Heck, William F. Buckley ran for mayor. Some former White House speechwriters are wildly overrated as analysts and pundits and some are wildly underrated.

Anyway the point is, by all means have a purge. But let’s be more selective and discerning about it – like they do in all the best purges. 

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