WANTED: Fewer Star Pundits, More Real-Life Roseannes
Are you tired of TV politics shows? We're talking about the programs starring elite insiders--pundits who've grown so close to the money and power corrupting Washington that they're almost blind to the corruption. Here's our proposal for a totally new TV show, with a panel of interesting, informed, down-to-earth people: perhaps a teacher, auto worker, nurse, retiree, small business owner and homemaker. Instead of chatter among Washington's nobility, the show would feature people of ordinary means debating the issues and questioning those in power. It would be less like "Meet the Press" than "Meet the Oppressed." Less like "This Week With David Brinkley" than "This Week With Roseanne Conner"--the canny heroine of the TV sitcom. And let's give our panel of workaday pundits--busy all week at their jobs--research help to allow them to fashion pointed questions on issues like taxes, trade, subsidies and campaign finance. A strict rule would be needed: If any of our working-class pundits evolve into stars who accept $30,000 for a one-hour speech, they'll immediately be fired -- and replaced by folks whose incomes are about $30,000 per year, close to the country's median family income. Why is a new show necessary? Because the existing punditocracy has lost touch with most of us. They don't just inhabit a different neighborhood, but a different planet. Let's pilot a spacecraft around the present-day studio of ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley." GEORGE WILL: The well-connected Will insists that viewers have no right to know about his connections. In April, Brinkley's executive producer asked Will-- before interviewing Bob Dole--to reveal that his wife would soon be communications director of the Dole presidential campaign. Will claims the disclosure was unnecessary, even though Dole's answers to Will's future questions will be partly shaped by Will's wife. In recent weeks, Will has crusaded--on the Brinkley show and in his syndicated column--against Bill Clinton's sanctions on Japanese auto imports. When newspapers reported that Will's wife, Mari Maseng Will, was paid $199,000 last year to lobby for the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, Will denied any duty to disclose that fact. "I was for free trade long before I met my wife," said Will. On our proposed non-elite pundit show, an auto worker moonlighting as a pundit would probably offer a different perspective on how "free trade" affects the U.S. economy. COKIE ROBERTS: Few would mistake Roberts for a workingclass hero. Her dad and mom were both members of Congress. Her brother, Thomas Boggs, is a top corporate lobbyist. Her establishment views are imbued with an attitude that she was born into power and deserves to stay there. The June issue of American Journalism Review shows that Roberts resents scrutiny of how she supplements her six-figure income from ABC-TV and National Public Radio. AJR says she received $35,000 two months ago to speak at a Junior League business conference in Fort Lauderdale--a fee supplied by JM Family Enterprises, a giant Toyota distributor. According to the Chicago Tribune, Cokie and Steven Roberts, her TV-pundit husband, picked up $45,000 from a Chicago bank for a joint appearance last October. Now that's togetherness. On Feb. 20, the couple was scheduled to speak at a gathering of Philip Morris executives, but Steve had to appear alone when Cokie canceled at the last moment. Philip Morris, the country's biggest cigarette manufacturer, is a force on Capitol Hill--the beat that Cokie Roberts covers. On our "outside the beltway" show, it's likely that a nurse on the panel--having seen the effects of tobacco up close--would be less cozy with Philip Morris. SAM DONADLSON: A multimillionaire who has pocketed up to $30,000 per speech to corporate gatherings, Donaldson holds down the "left wing" of the Brinkley show. He has also pocketed $97,000 in federal wool and mohair subsidies in the last two years for owning a ranch in New Mexico. He lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C. On the people's pundit show, we'd probably hear a different perspective on agriculture from a family farmer struggling to earn in a year what Donaldson earns from one speech. DAVID BRINKLEY: The show's host exudes an air of being above it all. But he's not above taking fees--$18,000 per speech--from Washington's special interests to entertain the executive class. Unlike most working-class people, Brinkley opposes increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans. He ridiculed such a proposal as a "sick stupid joke" in a 1992 speech to a trucking industry group. Last July, Brinkley joined Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson and other ABC News stars in formally protesting the network's hesitant limits on outside lecture fees. Maybe a real-life Roseanne Conner--whose smart-alecky outlook doesn't stem from an elite perch on the world--would be an ideal host of a pundit show. We believe many TV viewers are ready to watch this kind of "outside the beltway" show. But is there a TV network ready to air it? And sponsors ready to fund it? As Roseanne would say, "Don't hold your breath."