Thursday, July 24, 2008

Everybody's a pundit

Jonathan Martin of the Politico makes a point that I've long complained of:
Republicans have no lack of would-be George F. Wills. But what they really need are some more Robert D. Novaks. . . .
While conservatives are devoting much of their Internet energy to analysis, their counterparts on the left are taking advantage of the rise of new media to create new institutions devoted to unearthing stories, putting new information into circulation and generally crowding the space traditionally taken by traditional media. And it almost always comes at the expense of GOP politicians.
While online Republicans chase the allure of punditry and commentary, Democrats and progressives are pursuing old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.
When I worked at The Washington Times, I was often contacted by people asking "how do I get a column on the op-ed page?" To which I would habitually reply, "Hey, if I knew the answer to that question, I'd be on the op-ed page."

My job at the newspaper was on the news side of the operation, and as much as I might have wished to "chase the allure of punditry and commentary," The Washington Times always had more op-ed contributions than it could handle. Every conservative think-tank wonk and advocacy-group activist in town wants his column on that page and -- since they have full-time jobs at their 501(c) operations that pay them to push their viewpoints -- they're willing to offer their opinions for nothing, or next-to-nothing.

Meanwhile, there is also what I call the Former Deputy Undersecretary Syndrome -- it sometimes seems that anyone who ever worked in the Reagan administration now spends his spare time shopping op-eds. So good luck with those over-the-transom column submissions, people.

What my bosses at The Washington Times always had the hardest time finding was experienced reporters who "got it" in terms of the kind of news that a conservative readership is hungry for. Even without any reference to political leanings, really good reporters are hard to find, but trying to find a good reporter who also had some understanding of, or sympathy for, the conservative viewpoint -- well, you can ask my former bosses about how tough that was.

Why is it so hard to find conservatives who have any interest in doing basic "5Ws and an H" type of reporting? Two words: Low wages.

The newspaper business is one of the lowest-paying professions in America. Most years, my brother who's a semi-truck driver in Georgia made more money than I did as an assistant national editor at The Washington Times.

Liberals dominate the newspaper business for the same reason they dominate the fields of education and social work. Liberals are much more willing to do low-wage work that they think "makes a difference." Conservatives want to make a buck. (I was a Democrat when I started out, which explains how I ended up in the newsprint ghetto.)

If you're a liberal with good writing skills, you become a journalist. If you're a conservative with good writing skills, you go to law school.

There is a surfeit of would-be conservative pundits because people see the example of a few big-name successes -- Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, etc. -- and want to emulate that. And conservatives seem to misconceive the market for punditry. Call this the Fox News Syndrome.

Most of the people you see doing talking-head guest appearances on Fox News are not paid to be on those shows. They're consultants or think-tankers or authors pushing their latest books. They derive their income (which is not usually lucrative) from other full-time employment. But people tend to have the idea, ipso facto, that everyone who appears on TV is rich. And so you will find no shortage of College Republican types whose chief ambition in life is to someday do a 10-minute segment on O'Reilly or Cavuto.

The situation that Jonathan Martin has observed is deeply rooted in the infrastructure of the conservative movement, going back to the 1970s, when getting the think-tanker who could get a 700-word policy piece published on a newspaper op-ed page had scored a big coup.

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