Punditry crisis looms as spin cycle slows

August 14, 1998|By David Plotz

I FIRST realized something was terribly, terribly wrong when a Fox News producer called me Wednesday. She wanted me to opine about the scandal on Sunday, when the cable news channel will do a Flytrap marathon in anticipation of the president's testimony. Her call was fishy for two reasons: 1) I am not usually first, or second, or last on any TV booker's guest list; and 2) she said this to me, imploringly: "We're really looking for something different. Can you be different?"

(Well, I thought to myself, of course I can be different. My mother always told me I was "different.")

The pursuit of wretched excess in Flytrap is producing some unfortunate results. One is the rising popularity of preposterous conspiracy theories. The punditry crisis is another. Not since the late-O.J. era has America faced such an alarming moment. Is there anything left to say?

The crisis is, at bottom, a market failure. Ratings demonstrate that TV viewers (never mind their protestations) want to hear about Flytrap all the time. The gross appetites of CNN, MSNBC and Fox must be sated. "Crossfire" must have fire. "Hardball" must be hard. "Face the Nation" must have someone to face. But there's not enough supply to meet the demand.

News blackout

As Monday approaches, Flytrap is in an information blackout. The White House is silent, and independent counsel Kenneth Starr's office has stopped leaking. Every hypothesis has been hypothesized. Every theory theorized. Every spin spun. Each tiny nugget of new information is chewed, swallowed, regurgitated as cud, and chewed again. Pundits are reduced to flogging third-hand and fourth-hand rumors. Can any TV watcher endure another Jonathan Turley sermon or Lanny Davis "wait and see" or Laura Ingraham huff?

Too much demand, too little supply. TV producers are on a desperate, futile quest for someone -- or something -- different to put on the air. (This crisis is not, of course, limited to television: Those of us in the print and electronic media are thrashing through the same news vacuum.)

"I really don't know what pundits will do. We have six days to fill. And there's nothing," warns Time's Margaret Carlson. "If I had even one new fact, I would lock it in a vault until I could use it [in a column or on television]. If I had even one new observation, I would not breathe a word about it until I could use it. One piece of real news would eat all this [blather] up like kudzu."

Monica's lunch

Not every pundit is worrying about the crisis. Some Panglossian commentators claim there is no crisis at all. One compares Flytrap to World War I trench battles: "No one is getting overrun, but steady progress is being made." In fact, he says, plenty of fascinating new details emerge every day. (When asked for an example of such a detail, he suggests, halfheartedly, "what Monica ate for lunch.")

And for freshly minted Flytrap pundits such as Mr. Turley, there is no crisis, either. This is their moment. No topic is so stale that it cannot be reheated: After all, it gets you air time. And besides, say the Panglossians, no matter how much Flytrap nothing is being spewed, think how much worse it would be if there were no scandal at all. At least it's something to talk about.

But should we simply relax and let the punditry crisis grow into a catastrophe? Right-thinking people can agree: We should not. Stuart Taylor Jr., in a moment of high-minded optimism, proposes that pundits take advantage of the information vacuum to talk about first principles.

Instead of jabbing fingers over Monica's dress, for example, they should discuss the fundamentals of sexual harassment law.

I'm not sure Mr. Taylor's worthy solution is possible but, whether it is or it isn't, I think we can all concur that the punditry crisis requires immediate action. Well, maybe not action, but definitely a lot more talk.

David Plotz, a senior writer for Slate magazine, is based in Washington.

Pub Date: 8/14/98

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