Playing the Pundit

Posted August 1, 2012

Categories: Art, Articles, Featured, Plays

From The Pundit (with Sean Coe)

As a pundit, I’ve had my share of uncomfortable moments. I’ve been in front of the cameras and suddenly blanked on the name of a former South Korean president or the precise year when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. Such embarrassing lapses, for a Korean expert at least, are comparable to forgetting your own child’s birthday. Still, you develop workarounds for these moments, and they pass.

The challenges began to multiply when I moved from being a Korea specialist to an expert in U.S. foreign policy more generally. Suddenly I was expected to know something about practically every area of the world. I grew accustomed to conducting last-minute crams, just like high school the night before a test. I became a temporary pundit on political strife in Yemen, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, drone strikes in Pakistan. I was, literally, all over the map.

Sometimes late-breaking news has hip-checked my scheduled interview topic clear off the agenda. On television, of course, you don’t have the luxury of digging up an apt statistic on the computer or even your smartphone. Sometimes you just have to wing it.

I once arrived at a TV station to talk about Libya just as the news was breaking about a suspected Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

“We’d like to ask you about this breaking news,” my handler told me. When I confessed that I knew only as much about the topic as I’d gleaned from a subject line in my email inbox, she directed me toward a computer.

“We have a couple minutes before you’re on the air,” she said and walked away.

Punditry is never having to say, “I don’t know.”

Performance is an essential element of punditry. Once you sit before a microphone or in front of the cameras, you become a different person. Academics have to master the art of the sound bite. Journalists have to make their words come alive. And policy wonks have to attempt the impossible and become entertaining. For any of these talking heads, ignorance is not an option. The interviewer — and by extension, the audience — expects answers that are short and sweet, and that, preferably, predict the future.

The transformation into a media-friendly pundit comes at a price. “For $4,000 to $10,000 a day, trainers who are as ethically and intellectually diverse as journalists themselves teach the art of performing for the press,” Trudy Lieberman writes in a 2004 article in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Thirty years ago many members of Congress did not have press secretaries, let alone coaches to show them how to behave in front of a camera. Today it’s a rare public soul who had not been media trained.”

Lieberman outlines the basics of the training. Above all, take control of the interview, dodge the uncomfortable question if you must, rely on platitude if all else fails, but always remember to stay on message. Savvy pundits know what they want to say before the interviewer even utters the first question, and they rehearse their lines accordingly. They are expert at answering the questions they want to answer rather than the questions that are asked.

The unspoken requirement that pundits must now be performers explains, in part, the ease with which actors have turned themselves into spokespeople for serious issues. George Clooney on Sudan, Angelina Jolie on refugees, Richard Gere on Tibet, Sean Penn on Haiti: entertainers have increasingly taken time from their dramatic lives to play the pundit in front of Congress and the cameras. The politicians love them, and so does the media. Celebrities speak in quotable chunks, and they’re pretty to boot.

Going the other way, however, is relatively rare. Pundits, after all, usually have faces that are made for radio.

James Carville has made cameos in the movies Old School and Wedding Crashers. On the other side of the aisle, Grover Norquist, the anti-tax maven, has a bit part in the upcoming Ayn Rand blockbuster Atlas Shrugged. And, of course, media maven Marshall McCluhan appeared out of nowhere to bail Woody Allen out of a movie-queue confrontation with an intellectual boor inAnnie Hall.

The cavalier relationship between pundits and the world they are commenting on provoked me to write The Pundit, a play in the New York Fringe this August that explores the dictum that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The main character, Peter Peters, is a pundit at a Washington, D.C., think tank. He’s an expert on everything, even things he’s never heard of. Adept at playing the inside game, Peters is on the short list for an administration appointment. Everything goes smoothly until he agrees to talk about a terrorist attack in a country that he can’t even locate on the map. What starts out as a conflict in a far-off place eventually hits home.

In The Pundit, I’ve smuggled the drama of my media and foreign policy experience into the theater. I’ve exaggerated the political power plays of Washington, but not by much. I’ve played up the insularity of the inside-the-Beltway mentality, but even non-Washingtonians will instantly recognize the syndrome. The Pundit is a play, but it is also my reality. I’m grateful that I’m a pundit and that I can also play one on stage.

After my previous one-man shows, some of the most enthusiastic audience members urged me to quit my day job. The less enchanted few grumbled to their partners that I should keep my day job. This time around, with The Pundit, I can honestly reply to both factions: my dear, this is my day job.

Ruslan X (Sean Coe) squares off against Peter Peters (John Feffer)

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