So You Want to Be a Pundit?
As average consumers become increasingly alienated from the overwhelming task of ingesting, digesting and understanding what is going on in their community or state, not to mention the world, it is not surprising that as a culture we have become more dependent on those eminences known as pundits. These people are essentially interpreters of information, and in recent years they have proliferated, defining for Americans not only what is news but, just as dangerously, what it means and what we should think about it.Not very long ago, being white and male were requisites for eligibility for pundit status. More recently, in a largely cynical bow to diversity and demographics, the world of pundits has expanded a few inches to include some women, some people of color and an occasional voice to the left of the far right, although all of the above are few and far between on the punditing circuit.Pundits who are female, of color, left of center or all of the above often function as sane voices in an insane wilderness, doing their best to get a word in edgewise before being drowned out by their colleagues. In exchange, they are fairly well paid, build name recognition and receive regular media exposure, which they can use to push their magazine or newspaper careers, promote their books or even, in the best of all punditing worlds, contribute an independent and useful analysis.Several months ago I got a telephone call from MSNBC, the twenty-four-hour cable news channel created by Microsoft and NBC News. I was invited to "audition" to become one of their proposed twenty-one Pundits on Retainer. It seemed like a win-win situation to me. I'm a journalist, consume tons of information regularly and can talk. In addition, years of listening to David Brinkley, George Will, John McLaughlin, Michael Kinsley, Cokie Roberts et al. made it clear that punditry needed me.This was a chance to voice an opinion of events through the eyes, experience and concerns of an African-American woman. Most of the time, people like me are invisible. When black women are seen, too often it's as archetypal, demonic representatives of something gone wrong. We are the welfare queen exploiting and bleeding the system dry. The crack-smoking mother who leaves her children home alone or throws her toddler off a roof. The bearer of violent, destructive children who, in the best of all possible right-wing worlds, would be sterilized but, barring that, should at least be kicked off welfare if we continue to procreate.I should have known better. A couple of years ago, in the midst of O.J. mania, a producer for a network magazine show chased me around the country via telephone. He was putting together a show on the O.J. drama and was looking for a black woman's opinion. The producer and I agreed he would tape the interview with me, the writer Ishmael Reed and the athlete, sociologist and sports critic Harry Edwards in San Francisco. A few days later my telephone rang. It was the producer. "Jill, I've decided not to do the interview," he said."Why?" I asked."Well, I think your, Harry Edwards's and Ishmael Reed's opinions might be too similar," he said. I thought of pointing out that television constantly recycles the same tired white male thinkers and pundits and that never seems problematic. I didn't mention that the elements the three of us have in common are intelligence, an atypical view of events and being politically progressive-not a perspective you get very often from black people or anyone else allowed access to the mainstream media. I couldn't resist asking, "Are you going to have any black woman's opinion?" "Yes," he said. "But we decided we wanted to hear from some average black women." Oh, I think, this is great. A white man is going to tell me about the average black woman."I've got a woman from The Washington Times who's going to take me to a beauty parlor in Southeast D.C., where the women getting their hair done are angry that O.J. married a white woman." Ahhh. The average black woman is a reactionary who lives in the 'hood, gets her hair fried on Sat'day and don't care nothin' 'bout some white woman who got killed 'cause she stole her black man! Another great step forward for the exaltation of Shaniqua as Every Sister. I started to read him about his racist, simplistic definition of black female authenticity, but didn't.A few weeks after my audition for MSNBC, a very nice woman called to tell me that the president of NBC News thought I was "very articulate." I hear this a lot. It falls into the category of what I call "black compliments," which are actually insults because they reveal the speaker's negative suppositions. "Very articulate" presupposes that I am expected to be inarticulate, as if all -- or for that matter, any-black people talk "jive talk" a la the two dudes in the movie Airplane! Even being very articulate didn't help me, since I was informed that MSNBC wasn't going to use me because they were looking for more "conservative voices."What's disturbing about both these brushes with punditry is the conservative political criteria imposed on me by white males. I know of no demographic evidence suggesting that most black women are conservative or reactionary, but based on my experiences, that's what the producers are looking for. This undermines the notion that the press welcomes a free flow of ideas. How could anyone not suspect that the outcome of pundits' apparently vigorous debate is already predetermined?I still get occasional calls to pundit, usually when there's been a major black episode, like the Million Man March or a riot anywhere. Black female pundits aren't in very much demand, although MSNBC does have a few and CNN has one. But in general, having a black woman's voice consistently commenting on health care, welfare, the upcoming elections, the United States Supreme Court or the conflict with Iraq isn't important to the mainstream media, for all their talk about diversity and demographics.