The Punditry Crisis

Aug. 14 1998 3:30 AM

The Punditry Crisis

What will save America from this awful calamity?

I first realized something was terribly, terribly wrong when a Fox News producer called me yesterday. 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 the following to me, imploringly: "We're really looking for something different. Can you be different?"

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

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

The pursuit of wretched excess in Flytrap--a pursuit in which Slate has eagerly participated--is producing some unfortunate results. One, which I wrote about last week, 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. As Aug. 17 approaches, Flytrap is in an information blackout. The White House is silent, and 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 thirdhand and fourthhand 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 e-media are thrashing through the same news vacuum.)

"Ireally 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."

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

More Evidence That He Won't Do a Mea Culpa

One popular hypothesis about Aug. 17 is the notion that Clinton won't admit/apologize because Hillary Clinton won't let him. She refuses to let him humiliate her. Further support for this theory comes from a profile of Hillary in today's Washington Post. The Post rediscovered an astonishing 7-month-old quote from the first lady. Everyone remembers that the first lady blamed Flytrap on a "vast right-wing conspiracy" in a Today show interview during the first days of the crisis. The Post reminds readers of what else she said (Hillary's words are in italics):

"If a president were proved to have had an adulterous liaison while in the White House, the American people 'should certainly be concerned about it ... if all that were proven true, I think that would be a very serious offense. That is not going to be proven true. I think we're going to find some other things.' "

This is, admittedly, just a single line from a long-ago interview, but it suggests that the Clintons are locked into a denial. If Clinton admits an affair, how could Hillary ever explain away this quote? Can the president do a mea culpa knowing that the video of Hillary saying it "would be a very serious offense" would be thrown back in his face again and again and again?

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