The Opinionators
October 2008

by Ron Steinman

With the election for president almost upon us, the opinionators, known also as talking heads, live on TV and radio or in print, are in the forefront as never before in the history of the media. They are everywhere and impossible to escape. Most of what they say comes full-blown from inside overly fertile brains. They rarely if ever quote a source. They never engage in old-fashioned, cold reporting. As I read somewhere recently, "Frenzy is in fashion." Especially on TV and talk radio. How easy and cool is that!

If I had a way to relive my life, I would come back as a pundit, not on a fading newspaper, not even on the surging Web. I would come back on television, preferably on cable TV where people could see me throughout the day. I would wear nicely tailored suits, crisp shirts, and freshly styled ties. Though I hardly wear them these days, ties make the man and I would not object to wearing a different one for each appearance. I would be what I call a talking head supreme. That would be some life.

Here, however, is a suggestion I have about talking heads, for those mainly in TV news, and to a lesser degree, other purveyors of punditry. Especially in this season of politics. I am urging a lengthy freeze on the appearance of those experts. This includes those self-appointed analysts in the endless blogosphere. Think of the savings of space on newspapers. Think of how quickly and more easily you would navigate your favorite Web sites. Give the pundits lengthy vacations in the Seychelles Islands or maybe North Korea, for a taste of reality. Let the pundits try to refuel, if possible, and maybe get a needed suntan. The savings in makeup alone would benefit budgets. Having a constant TV pallor is a dead giveaway as to what one has been doing with one's life. The league of pundits needs time off to give the audience a chance to make its own choices based on reporting rather than opinion. Do not be deceived by what the experts want you to believe from his or her more fecund mind. Barren may be a better way to describe the usual pointless chatter. There is little substance in what these smiling, smirking or overly serious heads say. This is not media bashing similar to how disaffected and unhappy political parties and politicians are attacking the press in full throat. This is my call to restore reporting to the way it once was, a means of disseminating information collected by hardworking journalists in an effort to inform, rather than to influence.

Sitting a talking head, or, as in many cases, three, four or even five talking heads together in front of the camera is a cheap way to cover the news. There is no travel, no camera crew on the road, no correspondent and no producer to make sense of the story. There is only the studio that is there anyway. So sit the panel down and let them pontificate. Then the "fun" begins. Editors, or producers, surely must have a good time manipulating their puppet pundits.

I can hear them now. "Invoke the soccer mom. No, we mean, the hockey mom. Does anyone on staff play hockey? Better the Wal-Mart mom. Let's hear from the suburban diner crowd. Remind us about the three most disaffected Hillary supporters. Tell us about the one evangelical you know. Have a story ready about the steelworker, the mother with three jobs, the family without healthcare."

Does the news media assume the public is not smart enough to make up its own mind? Pundits make too many statements without sourcing. They do not report. They predict based on what they think, often without any basis. When an analyst says a candidate is short on biographical detail, does that mean we have to see his or her report card from the 9th grade? When an expert, at least in his or her mind, intones that we don't know enough of a candidate's story, do we have to know whether he or she kissed on the first date? And, who it might have been? Gender? Age?

Have you noticed that pundits on TV sound the same? They don't look the same. What talking head does? But, guided by sure hands in the control room that tell them when to go on and get off, with the help of able anchors they perform on the set as if they are robots come to life. What they say must come out of the ether. It often has no factual support. I am sure, except for physical differences, male, female, left, center or right, pundits are only one person. When they look in the mirror they must see the same face, male or female, despite wanting to be unique. They are, in a word, predictable and that is why producers put them on TV, the Web or, if an editor, in a newspaper.

Print media pundits do write differently. We don't often see a head shot so we don't know what they look like. The headline writers have the most fun, or at least I hope they do. They see a story and top it off with a phrase created to catch the reader's eye. Then the reader reads the story. When finished, he or she might intone, huh? The story did not deliver. Filled with too much opinion and too little fact, they give us a conclusion based on little verifiable evidence. Yes, a dilemma for the reader and usually one without a solution. Maybe for old-fashioned journalism cannot otherwise survive in the competitive 24/7-news cycle.

Call it a curmudgeon's lament but know that I am looking for freedom from cacophony and the self-important chattering class. I seek some peace of mind and relief from the constant assault to my eyes and ears. Sadly, I believe what I want will never happen but that doesn't mean I should stop complaining.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.