Alice in Punditland

Part of the reason The Progressive magazine sent me out to Washington, D.C., was to get involved in the weird world of television punditry. "To get a progressive voice and progressive views on the air," I think the press release said. My editor had no idea how au courant he was. But not about the progressive part. The Sunday New York Times magazine just ran an article about the trend toward putting more people my age on political talk shows. "It's, You Know, About Opinions and Stuff," was the title of the piece: a not-exactly- flattering portrait of Generation-X political commentary. One of the featured political commentators, Omar Wasow of MSNBC, seemed to be chiefly concerned with what he called "the visual trope of my hair" (he has dreadlocks). "I want to look like a bit of a bad boy," he said, but "I also want to be taken seriously." And so, he explained, "I wear suits." Another featured star was the ubiquitous Laura Ingraham, the blond conservative pundit who has made a name for herself by viciously attacking gays, feminists, environmentalists and almost anyone else who crosses her path. Wasow and Ingraham are a hot commodity, the Times explained, because the networks and cable broadcasters are looking to capture a more youthful market. Thus, they are nudging aside the familiar grumpy old men of political chat shows. Unlike the last generation, most of these young political commentators have no journalism experience. They are lawyers, consultants and entrepreneurs. But they are ready and willing to talk about anything: from Wheelchair Barbie to Tim McVeigh to Whitewater. This being television, expertise is not an issue. Image is all.I arrived in Washington as the changing of the guard began. Almost immediately I started getting calls. During the Presidential Inauguration, a producer from NBC's "American Journal" called and asked if he could send a camera crew to my house to interview me about the Clintons. I had been here exactly two weeks. I explained that I didn't know the Clintons personally, and probably knew less about the Inauguration than anyone else in town. "That's okay," the producer said. "If you don't mind, I'll book you." They were desperate to fill air space during their 48 hours of marathon inaugural coverage. The crew descended on my house, rearranged the furniture, filmed me walking up and down the stairs, and fired questions at me about whether Bill and Hillary look older than four years ago, and how Chelsea has changed. I did my best to give the politically progressive view. I have also been making my progressive voice heard on the issues of Paula Jones and Kelly Flynn quite a bit lately. I've been operating on my editor's theory that it's good to take every opportunity. It's often fun. But I'm not always sure I'm advancing the progressive cause. It worries me, for example, to find that I fill a niche in a kind of battle-of-the-babes format with young anti-feminists. On "Equal Time" with Bay Buchanan, a producer told me I was a "great match" with Kelly Ann Fitzpatrick, one of several cute, blond, right-wing Laura Ingraham clones. One of the topics on the show was late-term abortion. Fitzpatrick explained that in these modern, post-ideological times, choosing between being pro-choice or pro-life "is like taking a kid into an ice-cream store with 31 flavors and saying you have to pick chocolate or vanilla." How do you engage with that?Recently, a journalist friend helped arrange for me to meet a producer at MSNBC, Microsoft's cutting-edge, interactive cable-television venture -- and the pinnacle of Gen-X political punditry. The MSNBC building -- a giant warehouse out in the suburban Neverland of Seacaucus, N.J. -- is dazzling. Walking in, I felt I was on the set of a high-budget science-fiction movie. Everyone works in one central, glass-and-steel, airplane-hanger-sized area. Commentators sit on rotating stages in the center of the room. The stages roll across the room on a kind of rail system, to form different sets. Hundreds of people tap away on computer terminals in the background, under huge TV screens. The producer introduced me to some of the political commentators. I met a Democratic pollster in orange pancake makeup who looked like Michael J. Fox. He was sitting at a computer terminal, an earpiece dangling from a wire on his collar, answering e-mail from viewers while he waited to be called up onstage to comment on the news of the nanosecond. "I'm just a guy who got lucky and got on TV," he told me modestly, "but some of these people are really famous." Just then, Miss America arrived for an interview, and the producer ran off to meet her. I was left to talk with another commentator, a very attractive African American law professor named Kim Crenshaw, who became a regular MSNBC pundit after doing spot commentary during the O.J. Simpson trial. It turned out that she and I were going to be on the same radio program the next day on WBAI, New York's listener-sponsored radio station. My new friend, who is a feminist and a proponent of a radical school of thought called critical race theory, looked completely different the next morning--sans makeup and dressed casually--in the grungy, downtown studio of WBAI. The topic of the show was getting left-wing voices into the mainstream media. She, too, said she felt like an outsider in punditland. "In the academy, you get hired because of your expertise in your field," she said. "In TV it's all subjective. It's only 25% content, at most. You never know why they want you, and you don't know why when you're gone." I am still not at all sure about the political usefulness of punditry. But I find it pleasantly surprising to encounter people like Kim, espousing humane, progressive views, in the middle of mainstream TV. So I continue to plug away on the theory that it's good to accept all invitations to get the progressive viewpoint out there. Still, I occasionally wonder. Last week, I was on "American Journal" for a second time. I found myself standing on the front lawn of the Capitol, talking earnestly about Chelsea Clinton going off to college. Ruth Conniff is the Washington editor of The Progressive magazine. She writes a monthly column for Isthmus.

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