How to become a cable news pundit
"I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television," Gore Vidal once declared. This is terrific advice. Of course, not everyone has the chance — particularly with the latter endeavor. So let me help shed a little light on the secret society of TV pundits — and how to get into it.
Let's say you're an aspiring journalist or strategist and want to make a name for yourself. How do you do it? Of course, the most obvious way — still! — is to get on TV. There is something magical about TV. The medium itself bestows upon the pundit a sense of expertise, earned or not. God bless America.
So how do you get on TV? The first step is to establish some sort of credibility in the eyes of the bookers. They need to tell their bosses that they scored an important person associated with an important organization. It is very difficult for them to sell an appearance by an unimportant person associated with an unimportant organization. (The important-versus-unimportant distinction, of course, could hardly be more subjective.) Plus, they need to put something on the chyron, such as: "Matt Lewis is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com."
If you already have a relationship with a well-known media outlet or firm, congratulations! But if you're just breaking in, you can cobble together some quasi-respectable credentials by doing freelance work (possibly even for free!). Or maybe even start your own website or company. As is true with many things on cable television, the substance matters very little — it just has to sound legit.
So let's say you now seem like a somewhat important person affiliated with a somewhat important website or organization. To whom do you now pitch yourself? It's not as if you can go to CNN.com and fill out a contact form that says: "I WANT TO BE ON TEE-VEE!"
TV bookers don't want unsolicited pitches from people they've never heard of. (A Catch-22: You can't break into the business if you're not in the business.) And the PR and consultant types who want you to pay them to help get you on TV often have little else to sell beyond email lists of producers (which they have either paid handsomely for — or cobbled together through years of networking).
You also can't ask anyone for help. Seriously, don't even think about asking someone for a producer's contact info. If you know someone who is doing TV commentary, do not ask him or her to help you get on. It's the kind of thing that skeevy people do. I would sooner ask someone to help me move or pick me up at the airport than to give me the contact information for a TV producer.
Why? For one, it feels rude to bombard bookers with unsolicited pitches, or to put a friend in a position where he's facilitating such behavior. But it's also because, at some level, we are all in competition. If you're a conservative pundit asking me to share a booker's contact information, you might as well ask if you can dance with my wife. Stay out of my lane.
Now let's say that somehow you end up getting ahold of a producer. (Maybe you kept emailing random firstname.lastname@example.org until someone responded?) Assuming they are even mildly interested in you, the first thing they will ask is if you've been on cable news before. They want to see a clip of you on TV to see if you're worthy of going on TV (another Catch-22).
Haven't been on TV? No problem. Here's the secret: Pitch yourself during holidays. Their requirement for having previous TV appearances will magically disappear. Be available when all the "A-list" guests and paid "contributors" are out of town for Christmas or July 4 or Memorial Day. This is especially good if you're looking to get your foot in the door and prove yourself. I haven't taken a vacation during a holiday for years. I was once on MSNBC for like four hours straight. And you want to know why? It was all because Sarah Palin decided to quit her job on July 3, 2009 — you know, right about the time Pat Buchanan and Michael Steele were crossing the Bay Bridge, headed toward Ocean City, Maryland.
At this point, it might be worth asking if you really want to do this — or if you're ready to do this. The life of a TV pundit can be costly and humiliating. If you go on unprepared, you might make a fool of yourself. Plus, even if you're great, it's not really as fun as it seems. There's a lot of prep and make-up and logistics for a four-minute spot that only a tiny percentage of the country sees. I have traveled 10 hours in a day to be on TV for 10 minutes. I was once bumped from a spot — I'm talking about being in the chair and in make-up — because there was a mountain lion loose in a San Diego neighborhood.
Sometimes you're sitting in a dark room all alone with an earpiece in and bright lights shining in your face as you talk into a camera and pretend you see someone. "It's good to see you too, Contessa!" you'll lie. That pretty much sums up the authenticity of the cable news experience.
Sometimes you're asked to talk about things you don't know all that much about. Seriously, I once did a TV hit based on the question "Is shy bladder syndrome a disability?" Thankfully, I'm not an expert. Still, every school child in America should have to watch this video with the ironic words "Punditry is Glamorous" emblazoned on my forehead.
And — unlike the quiet confines of a writer's studio — sometimes people yell at you. A lot. Like the time Michael Eric Dyson accused me of exerting "white privilege."
And does it even pay the career dividends you hope for? It used to be that if you were a stand-up comedian and you got on Johnny Carson, your career was made. The next day your agent would get a million calls and you'd have all sorts of choices. That was when there were like three channels.
If you go on cable news today, almost no one will notice. This isn't like an '80s movie montage scene where you'll be recognized on the street, cars will pull up to you and the drivers will wave, construction workers will give you a thumbs-up, and so on. The odds are you won't be recognized except in #ThisTown.
There's also this: TV has a way of making you crazy. I've seen well-adjusted people become incredibly insecure when they stop getting called by bookers. And that's particularly unnerving when you factor in the sheer unpredictability of getting booked. It may have nothing to do with your performance. Sometimes, it's as simple as the industry changing. I was once a regular on Dylan Ratigan, a show that no longer exists. I was becoming a regular on Lou Dobbs' CNN show, just as he was exiting. And for years, I was on CNN's Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz, who is no longer there. (I still go on the show with Brian Stelter.) The point is that you will have little control over your own fate.
And yet, so many people are dying for the chance. That's because Gore Vidal was right. And he wasn't alone. In the mostly forgotten Nicole Kidman movie To Die For, the protagonist declares: "You aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV." This isn't even close to true, of course, but it sometimes feels that way for the aspirational.
So how can you get on TV and still remain a happy and decent person? By becoming the sort of person who a cable news booker will perceive as being worthy of listening to in the first place. Be the kind of person the bookers want to woo, not the kind of person who wants to woo the bookers.
But here's the bigger question: Why would you want to be a TV pundit in the first place?