Politics & Policy

You Wanna Be a Pundit?

A liberal think tank offers a training course.

Las Vegas–The YearlyKos convention, beginning here today at the Riviera Hotel, hadn’t been open for more than a minute or two before there was a dispute about one of the blogosphere’s most passionate causes: freedom of information. Normally, bloggers both left and right believe the more freedom–and the more information–the better. But not today.

The problem arose at a workshop entitled “Center for American Progress Pundit Project Training.” Conducted by the Washington-based liberal think tank, the session was intended to offer advice and training to bloggers who want to appear on radio and television and become, in the words of one participant, “mini-pundits.”

But would-be mini-pundits weren’t the only ones who showed up at 8:00 A.M. in a nondescript conference room down several winding halls from the Riviera’s casinos. Reporters showed up, too, drawn not only by all the hype surrounding YearlyKos but because the pundit session seemed sexier than the other fare available–panels like “CivicSpace Website Building Workshop” and “Progressive Majority Workshop: Recruiting Progressive Candidates.” So the Center for American Progress trainers and their student pundits found themselves under the gaze of Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, Ana Marie Cox of Time, Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard, and others.

That made organizers a little nervous. “This is off the record,” said one volunteer.

Off the record? Really? “You mean like this never happened?” asked one reporter.

“Off the record,” the volunteer repeated, adding that he needed to talk it over with the Center for American Progress people.

After a good deal of back-and-forth, it became clear that organizers weren’t so much running a secret society–that did seem a little out of place at a highly publicized political bloggers gathering–as they were concerned about privacy of the participants. They were amateur commentators from all around the country–teachers, activists, lawyers–who, in the training session, were going to sit in front of a camera and practice their punditry techniques, interviewed by one of the trainers from the Center. What if they messed up, or said something embarrassing? There was no reason to quote them by name, was there?

That seemed reasonable, so an agreement was reached. No names would be used. And then the Center for American Progress trainers asked that their names not be used, either. Echoing Vice President Dick Cheney and others who have defended Bush administration secrecy policies, the trainers said they wanted to be able to give candid advice without being quoted by name.

Okay, no names for the trainers, either.

And what candid advice was there? The Center’s trainers–identified here as CAP Trainer 1 and CAP Trainer 2–told the bloggers to do things like sit up straight when they appear on television, not wave their arms around while making a point, and keep their answers short and succinct.

Some of the participants had been on local radio and television shows talking about their particular interests–education, abortion, media bias, the war in Iraq. CAP Trainer 1 explained to them how TV and radio newsrooms work and what producers and bookers look for in talking-head guests. And the guests those producers and bookers are looking for at the moment are…bloggers.

“There’s a premium on bloggers now,” said Trainer 1. “There is a window following this conference to try to make yourselves available to the media…You are the new cool kids on the block, and you should leverage that now.”

The reason bloggers might do well on TV and radio, Trainer 1 continued, is that they aren’t afraid of speaking their minds. And they can stand up to some well-known media figures. “If you’re on with John Gibson, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews–”

“You’re in hell!” said someone in the audience.

“They are hosts with a point of view,” Trainer 1 said. And by the way, Trainer 1 continued, liberal bloggers shouldn’t avoid appearing on the Fox News Channel. “If Fox TV asks you to go on, you should go on. The American people are smart, and they can see what’s going on.”

Not everyone in the group found that terribly convincing. “I was just wondering what world you were living in,” said one man who raised his hand, “if you said the America people are smart…”

After a bit more advice–”Don’t let them try to marginalize you as a blogger, they may think that you are nutty and kind of wild,” said Trainer 2–it was time for the practice interviews. The Center had set up a video camera in one corner of the room, and the pundit trainees were asked to sit in a chair on the other side of the room–a situation that would almost never occur in a real-life television appearance–and stare at the far-away lens for an interview about a topic about which the blogger felt particularly strongly. The pundit trainee would answer questions posed to him or her by CAP Trainer 2, who took an adversarial position without being too aggressive or impolite.

One blogger wanted to talk about health care. After his criticism of the Bush administration, Trainer 2 asked, “You’re looking for socialized medicine?”

“Sure, why not?” the man answered. “I think it’s time people stopped ducking from the moniker socialized medicine. Every other industrialized nation on this planet has socialized medicine. I’m happy to associate myself with that label and that school of thought.”

There was applause all around. That was great, said Trainer 1. It was an example of bloggers speaking their minds: “Yeah, socialized medicine, bring it on.”

Another blogger wanted to talk about abortion. “I’ve been in the abortion business for 30 years,” she said as she walked toward the interview chair, adding that she owned a string of abortion clinics around the country.

As her talk began, Trainer 2 asked her, “Doesn’t it make sense to have some common-sense restrictions on abortion?”

“The problem is most of those restrictions decrease access,” the woman said. “I think abortion should be more available throughout the country.” As it is, she continued, women often have to drive long distances to get an abortion.

But an abortion is a big deal, Trainer 2 responded. Isn’t it okay if people have to go some distance to get one?

“No,” the woman said. “People should have health care in their own neighborhoods. Abortion is one of the safest health care procedures in the world.”

“But isn’t it traumatizing for the woman?” Trainer 2 asked.

“Absolutely not,” the pundit trainee said. “Relief is the number-one reaction that people have to abortion. Abortion is not a traumatizing procedure for most of the women.”

“Bravo!” said someone in the audience as applause broke out.

And so it went with the other interviews. Near the end of the session, one woman said she doubted she could be effective on television, because her feelings about some political issues were just too passionate; she had once cursed at a reporter who asked her about Iraq. Passion is a good thing, her fellow bloggers told her. “I quit a tenure-track job because of political fights,” said one sympathetic teacher. Everyone agreed that the woman should speak out.

Of course, that’s the reason they were there in the first place. At YearlyKos, passion and speaking out are what it’s all about. Even if there are no names allowed.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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