What Makes A Great Pundit?

My friend Ricardo posts on Twitter: “I’ve come back around on Richard [Spencer]. Not sure I ever really left. Truly the greatest pundit of his generation.”

What makes a great pundit? What type of person seeks out a pundit? What’s the difference between a pundit, a public intellectual, and a guru?

A guru gives guidance on many areas of life. A pundit and a public intellectual focus on one or two parts of life such as politics or economics. A public intellectual has scholastic accomplishment and the respect of his academic peers. A pundit rarely has scholastic accomplishment and academic respect. A public intellectual usually speaks to the 115 IQ crowd and above. A pundit usually speaks to the 100 IQ crowd.

A public intellectual often has profound things to say. Pundits tend to “produce ersatz wisdom: a corrupt epistemics that creates the appearance of useful knowledge, but has none of the substance.”

Public intellectuals don’t feel compelled to entertain. Pundits know they’re putting on a show. And when you optimize for truth and goodness, putting on a show is more challenging.

I optimize for truth. Therefore, I can’t be as exciting as the pundit.

In pre-modern times, the clergy would paint vivid pictures of the world of good and evil, of demons and angels, of gods and devils. He’d describe to rapt audiences titanic battles between God and Satan. In our more secular age, people rarely meet their needs for excitement by going to a sermon. Instead, they seek out gurus who describe hidden worlds.

What type of person seeks out a pundit? Usually, it is someone with an unusually intense interest in politics and an unusually intense need for distraction from reality. A pundit who says that Americans live in a blessed country and that politics is not important to 99% of people 99% of the time is not going to meet that need for distraction and excitement. A pundit who exudes gratitude is not exciting. Gratitude means a slower way of speaking and a softer presentation with a variable melody. Happy speech has varying volume and melody. Exciting speech is solid volume, fast-paced and upward in melody (think about a football announcer describing an unexpected touchdown).

Many people can listen to Jordan Peterson or Dennis Prager or Ben Shapiro or Richard Spencer on a recreational basis and not get obsessed, but some people listen to these guys and get hooked.

Who gets hooked and who doesn’t? A person with a normal level of connection to others is unlikely to get hooked. Only the disconnected get hooked. They have a hole in their soul that temporarily gets filled by this parasocial relationship with the pundit and so they keep coming back to the person who makes them feel whole.

We’re all broken in various ways and we all hate those who remind us that we’re broken and we all love those who make us feel good.

The successful pundit must constantly make points you can’t get elsewhere. This increases his importance. When I hear pundits pronounce these days, my first question is how does this point enhance the pundit’s status? Most pundits, under the surface, are just banging on about how important they are. Right-wing pundits in particular tend to be anti-establishment because if they just repeat points from established sources then why does anyone need them? This need to produce singular insights into life inevitably leads to conspiracy theories.

Great men such as Steve Sailer, Charles Murray, Christopher Caldwell and Richard Hanania share insights that help you better understand the world. Most pundits, however, including Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Rich Lowry, and Jonah Goldberg, are more vain glorious than glorious.

There are two traditional paths to becoming a pundit. One path is to recite the greatest hits of a particular worldview to provide the equivalent experience of Top 40 radio. You have your talking points down and you apply them to the news. Being a parrot, however, is not the path to greatness as a pundit. To be great, you have to paint vivid pictures of a world your listeners can’t see. You have to make exciting points that people won’t get elsewhere. For example, Dennis Prager talks about how Americans are living through a civil war and that we’re becoming more like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia every day. You might look around and see skies of blue and trees of green and think what a beautiful world. Dennis Prager looks around and sees another holocaust bearing down on us. Because you don’t see this, and Dennis does, you might keep tuning in to him so you can hear about an exciting reality that nobody else sees. That makes you special. You’re in on a secret. Dennis Prager’s commanding voice and intellect convey a sense of profundity. If you’ve got a hole in your soul, this performance might temporarily fill you up and so you keep coming back to get your fix.

People who are ill at ease often want a seer who can reduce their anxiety by providing a comforting narrative. They may want a substitute parent to protect them and their hero system.

To be a working pundit, you can’t optimize for truth because truth is frequently mundane, complicated, contradictory, unpopular and discomforting to every hero system. Instead, you optimize for excitement, attention seeking, crowd pleasing, and theatrical presentation. You want to convey the feel of profundity though you can rarely give the real thing.

A pundit who is grateful for the good job our system did combatting Covid is not going to amass a large following. A pundit who says there is no evidence for aliens is not on a glide path to fame and fortune. To become a successful guru, it helps to buy into conspiracy theories about how the average person is getting shafted and you are fighting for them.

Richard Spencer, a longtime man of the right, talks these days about how useless Republicans are. This is exciting to hear. If Republicans are useless, then we need a substitute, and maybe Richard’s new religion of Apolloism is the way to go.

From where I stand, America’s biggest problem right now is that the Biden administration has dramatically increased our chances of getting into a nuclear war with Russia and China. By arming Ukraine, Biden precipitated Russia’s 2022 invasion, and then he escalated the chances of us getting into a war with Russia by heavily subsidizing Ukraine’s fight for survival. By repeatedly and publicly announcing that America will fight to protect Taiwan, Biden has dramatically increased our chances of getting into a war with China. These are two unforced errors.

Republicans are less gungho about arming Ukraine and going to war with Russia. I doubt that Russia would have felt the need to invade Ukraine if Trump had been reelected.

Republicans such as Trump have also been less provocative towards China than leading Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.

Making the argument that unnecessarily increasing our chances of war with Russia and China is bad won’t make for exciting Richard Spencer-type punditry. You’re not likely to build a public career dispensing such observations.

America’s greatest internal problems are violent crime and unchecked immigration. Republicans consistently put more emphasis on capital punishment and lengthy prison terms for violence offenders than do Democrats. Who are the leading Democratic politicians making the case for capital punishment and lengthy prison terms for violent offenders? I can’t think of any.

Republicans consistently put more emphasis on border security than do Democrats. Trump by 2020 was the first American president since Eisenhower who dramatically curtailed illegal immigration.

These Republican policies of reluctance to go to war with Russia, to protect our borders, and to punish violent criminals are not exciting enough for Richard Spencer to support, but these policies will improve the lives of most Americans.

Not only do pundits rarely optimize for truth, they also rarely optimize for the good of their people because goodness is rarely exciting. Goodness is usually mundane. It is hard. It rarely opens pathways to the loins of young women. It requires sacrifice.

Think about someone who optimizes for the well-being of his family. This is not someone who can lead a James Bond type life. This person is devoted to duty rather than following his bliss.

If you put a high priority as a man on staying faithful to your spouse, there are many places in life you can’t go (unless you have a good reason to go there and your spouse is ok with it). Similarly, if you are a pundit and you put a high priority on truth, there are a lot of compelling things you can’t say. If you put your priority on the welfare of your people, there are many exciting things you can’t say.

What elicited Ricardo’s tweet yesterday? Richard Spencer tweeting: “As Speaker, Donald Trump would only have to hang two people to return to the White House.”

This is an exciting take, but it is a terrible take. Donald Trump would be a terrible Speaker of the House. It does not play to his skill set.

Now, you might well point out that Richard is joking here, and that his joke can’t be critiqued the same way as a piece of punditry. And I agree with your rejoinder.

But my larger point stands. It is exciting to hear about Donald Trump becoming Speaker of the House, but it is not going to happen. If it does happen, it won’t lead to House Republicans accomplishing anything because Donald Trump does not have an impressive track record as a leader. He’s been a terrible CEO. He’s disorganized, undisciplined and childish. These are not the traits you want for a good Speaker of the House.

CNN host Michael A. Smerconish writes in his 2014 novel Talk:

* “Fire, tits, and sharks are TV gold. But on radio you need to make ‘em hot the harder way. Through the ears.”

* 3 Cs: “ Conservative, consistent, and compelling,”

* “Remember Stan, you need red meat for the troops.”
That was another of his staples.
“And add an occasional slice-of-life segment. Sprinkle in some Seinfeld shit.”
For the latter, he was forever imploring me to look outside the normal mix of newspapers and cable TV shows for my program content. He believed that too many talk radio hosts didn’t balance the hard news of the day with whatever might command attention at workplace water coolers and coffee machines across the nation. Phil paused, maybe needing to catch his breath in the thin desert air of New Mexico. “If listeners aren’t using your stuff for stupid talk with people they barely know, then you didn’t nail it on air, Powers.”

* Phil told me that a good talk show host should be able to go the length of an entire program without taking a single call from a listener. He actually challenged me to do it on my next program. That tutorial was a keeper.
“But isn’t that the purpose of a talk radio program—for the host and the listeners to talk?” I’d naively asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Powers. The purpose of a talk program is the same as the guy talkin’ on a fucking CB—to get people to listen. It’s all entertainment.”
And then he said something I’ve never forgotten.
“Nobody is listening to your show, or any other talk radio show, because of the callers. They listen for the host. You will never meet a listener who tunes into your program because of your callers. They are listening to hear you, Stan. And if you don’t entertain them, they won’t listen at all. No matter who your callers are, or what horseshit they have to say.”
Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me, but he was right. Not once had anyone ever emailed my web site or spoken to me directly about something a caller said on the air. For better or worse, all the feedback was about me.

* “He said that you know how to play the hits and that is all talk will require of you. You’ll still be playing the hits, but instead of playing the usual songs, you’ll be offering the tried and tested sound bytes. Same formula, just different material.”

* The program is four hours long, with four six-minute breaks per hour for commercials, news and PSAs. During those commercial breaks I am usually obligated to read live spots, which leaves little time to even take a piss. So there is really no stopping once the “on air” light goes on, and by the time it turns off at 9 a.m., I’ve got very little to say.

* Phil. I often started the 5 a.m. hour with a soft story, sometimes pulled from the front page of the Wall Street Journal , below the fold with one of those pixilated photos. The Journal has a habit of printing terrific, slice-of-life kinda stuff in that spot, often having nothing to do with the world of finance. I remember one day they had a great piece analyzing the number of times college basketball players bounce the ball before they shoot foul shots in games in relation to successful attempts. (Four times seemed to bring the best success, 77 percent of them went in the hoop, as compared to say, 60 percent if you only dribbled once.) Or another day I pulled something from the New York Times about how only seven people in the company that owns Thomas’ English Muffins knew how the muffins got their distinctive air pockets, and how when one of the seven left for a competitor, his departure touched off a case of alleged corporate skullduggery. Phil thought these kinds of stories were a nice way to ease into the day before I got to the red meat.
After the soft stuff, I’d begin the process of running through the main headlines of the day, a combination of the local and national. For the entirety of the 6 a.m. hour, I would continue with the rundown of the news, offering some commentary with every headline.

Things changed at the stroke of 7 a.m., prime time for morning drive radio. Now I would take it up a notch and hit hard on the front-page items of the day. The lead political story commanded my attention and this was where I tried to pack a punch. In campaign season, it was always something political. National healthcare (bad), illegal immigration (worse), and the federal deficit (atrocious) had been my stock-in-trade for the last few years. I’d spell out an issue, cue Rod to run some sound bytes that corresponded to that news, then offer my take, and finally go to the phones.
“Ignore those blinking lines until they serve a purpose,” Phil would constantly drum in my ear. Still, it was hard not to be pleased by the instant feedback.
“Remember, those callers are your props. Nobody gives a fuck what that guy says except that guy. If his old lady cared, he’d be telling her not you. But she doesn’t give a shit. So you’re the only outlet he has. The only reason you let him on your air is that he gives you fodder to say more.”

Phil also timed my callers like they were running the 40 at an NFL combine. I swear he would sit on his ass in Taos with a stopwatch and shout whenever any caller was on the air for more than two minutes. No caller was ever worth two minutes of airtime according to him. At first I didn’t see any harm in letting someone ramble as long as I thought they were interesting.
“Isn’t it supposed to be a talk program?” I would sometimes counter.
“It is… and you are the one who is supposed to be talking.”
Over time, I saw his point.
“Callers are there to give you something to play off of, to give you material to say something and appear smart, or acerbic. And let me tell you something else—nobody wants to hear callers who say ‘Stan, you are so right about this.’ Booooring.”
In no time we were routinely flooded with callers regardless of the subject, and it took quite a skill set for Alex to juggle 12 ringing lines at once. Her job was to not only get some bare bones information about who was calling and why, but also to type that data on her computer, which in turn put it on a screen in front of me. At the same time she needed to ascertain whether the callers could put together sentences and were younger than Stonehenge. Nothing sucks more oxygen out of a program that an old-timer who dodders when you punch up his call.
Our focal point every morning was the 7:30 segment, during which I would often do interviews with hard news guests. Newsmakers, like elected officials, or nationally known politicians or pundits or authors of right-wing screeds would usually be heard then. Again, with a short call segment to follow.
“Welcome back to Morning Power , on the line, it is my privilege to be joined by former Governor Mike Huckabee. Huck, thanks for being here.”
“You’re welcome Stan, and good morning to all in the I-4 corridor….”
In the final hour, having already covered the hard news of the day, I tended to do more shits and giggles. You know, some pop culture, sound from American Idol , and the other water cooler stuff that gave the show balance.

* My listeners were concentrated in the I-4 corridor, the stretch between Tampa and Orlando, and they had been known to tip the scales in more than one presidential race. As the top-rated talk host in a mid-sized but hotly contested market, I could very well find myself at the political epicenter of the upcoming election. The stage was set for my career to really pop, and I didn’t want to blow my shot.

* our P1s—that’s radiospeak for our most ardent listeners—couldn’t get enough. They may comprise a relatively small segment of society, but there are no more faithful radio listeners than fans of conservative talk.

* “Talk radio is a clubhouse for conservatives,” Phil had explained. “It’s an intimate place where people on the right can go and be with likeminded folk while having their opinions reinforced. Without talk, they are homeless in the media.”

* Arizona passed a law to get tough on those crossing the border. Naturally that was big on my program.
“Our Mexican border is wide open because the feds have been derelict in their duty,” I’d said.
So far, so good.
But Phil didn’t like what came out of my mouth next.
“Arizona had to act, but by drafting their law so broadly, I think they have left their police vulnerable to claims of unconstitutional traffic stops.”
When he heard that, he pounced.
“You’re not teaching law school, Powers. Stop confusing the audience with your nuanced bullshit. Praise Arizona; condemn the fucking feds. Like everything else, make it the failure of the federal government.”
When it came to colorful opinions, Phil had no interest in shades of gray. Just black and white.
“The audience will think you’re a pussy, Powers. And pussies don’t get nationally syndicated.”

* “Stan, let me repeat for you a lesson from ‘Talk Radio and Cable TV 101’,” Phil often told me. “There is no political middle. It doesn’t exist on radio. You will never get anywhere saying anything moderate or mushy. Either you offer a consistent conservative view, or you’re not getting traction.”
My idiotic response: “Well, isn’t democracy based on an exchange of ideas, not just one point of view?”
“Fuck democracy, Stan. You’re not a Founding Father, you’re a talk show host. This business is all about ratings, not governing. And here is the secret. Ratings are driven by passion, not population. They are not controlled by general acceptance.”
“Three extremists are worth more than ten moderates,” was yet another favorite Phil-ism on this point.

* Gore Vidal once said, “You should never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.” Well, Vidal only told part of the story. GOP dirty trickster and Vidal acolyte, Roger Stone was the one who correctly explained that doing the latter would facilitate the former. The more you appeared on television, the more opportunity you had to get laid.

* “Stan, the goal here is national syndication. The only thing cable TV can do for you professionally is gain you recognition with PDs across the country, so that when they get a call from a syndicator who wants to know if they’ll clear your show, they don’t say, ‘Never heard of him.’ Remember, there are more than fifty guys who are syndicated in this country, but only about five who have made it work. When I cut your deal, I want you to be one of the five, not one of the fifty.”

* “How far do you think you’d get in this business today if you walked into a radio station and told the program director you were the Gentleman of Broadcasting? Nowhere.
“It all changed in the ’90s and I know why. Before the Internet, before Fox, before Drudge, you conservatives didn’t have a clubhouse. The media consisted of the New York Times, Washington Post and the big three networks, and each was run by a bunch of liberals. I get that. I don’t fault the logic. Or the need for an alternative.
“So you established a beachhead in talk radio. And when, in the midst of the first Gulf War, a guy in Sacramento named Rush Limbaugh offered what you were looking for, you ate it up and you wanted more. And radio stations across the nation took note and they wanted Rush and a stable of his imitators. And it worked. And do you know why it worked? Not because Rush was a political expert. Hell, he didn’t even vote. And not because he was an election soothsayer. It worked because the man is a gifted entertainer. His worst political critics have never given him the credit he deserves for his ability to keep an audience entertained for three hours a day working with no more than a daily newspaper!
“Then Fox did the same thing on TV.
“And together with the Internet, conservatives now had places to call home.
“Then the predictable happened. Liberals took note and decided they should do the same thing. They tried and failed on radio with Air America. There was never the need for a liberal clubhouse in radio because their audience always had NPR! On cable TV, they succeeded with MSNBC. It took them a while before they got it right, but Keith Olbermann was the first to emulate from the left what Limbaugh and Fox did from the right.”

* Gone are the days when a successful career in Washington was dependent upon longevity in office, and the corresponding seniority that brought prestigious assignments. Today, the quickest path to success is to say something incendiary, get picked up in the cable TV news or talk radio world, and then become a fundraising magnet. Because you know who loves that sort of entertainment? The ideologically driven voters who vote in primaries in hyper-partisan districts within closed-primary states!

In 2008, Dan Shelley, former news director and assistant program director at Milwaukee’s WTM radio, wrote for Milwaukee Magazine:

The Lund Talk Radio Stylebook

…talk show hosts…are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.

To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners. 

The enemy can be a politician — either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a "RINO" (a "Republican In Name Only," who is deemed not conservative enough. It can be the cold cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the "mainstream media…"  

In the talk radio business, this concept, which must be mastered to be successful, is called “differentiating” yourself from the rest of the media. It is a brilliant marketing tactic that has also helped Fox News Channel thrive. “We report, you decide” and “Fair and Balanced” are more than just savvy slogans. They are code words signaling that only Fox will report the news in a way conservatives see as objective and truthful.

Forget any notion, however, that radio talk shows are supposed to be fair, evenhanded discussions featuring a diversity of opinions. The Fairness Doctrine, which required this, was repealed 20 years ago. So talk shows can be, and are, all about the host's opinions, analyses and general worldview. Programmers learned long ago that benign conversations led by hosts who present all sides of an issue don't attract large audiences.

One entire group that rarely gets on the air are the elderly callers – unless they have something extraordinary to say. Sadly, that doesn’t happen often. The theory is that old-sounding callers help produce old-skewing audiences. The target demo is 25 to 54, not 65 and older…

Talk show fans are not stupid. They will detect an obvious phony. The best hosts sincerely believe everything they say. Their passion is real. Their arguments have been carefully crafted in a manner they know will be meaningful to the audience, and that validates the views these folks were already thinking.

A smart talk show host will, from time to time, disagree publicly with a Republican president, the Republican Party, or some conservative doctrine. (President Bush’s disastrous choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court was one such example.) But these disagreements are strategically chosen to prove the host is an independent thinker, without appreciably harming the president or party. This is not to suggest that hosts don’t genuinely disagree with the conservative line at times. They do, more often than you might think. But they usually keep it to themselves.

If you lack compelling arguments in favor of your candidate or point of view, attack the other side. These attacks often rely on two key rhetorical devices, which I call You Know What Would Happen If and The Preemptive Strike.

Using the first strategy, a host will describe something a liberal has said or done that conservatives disagree with, but for which the liberal has not been widely criticized, and then say, “You know what would happen if a conservative had said (or done) that? He (or she) would have been filleted by the ‘liberal media.’ ” This is particularly effective because it’s a two-fer, simultaneously reinforcing the notion that conservatives are victims and that “liberals” are the enemy.

The second strategy, The Preemptive Strike, is used when a host knows that news reflecting poorly on conservative dogma is about to break or become more widespread. When news of the alleged massacre at Haditha first trickled out in the summer of 2006, not even Iraq War chest-thumper Charlie Sykes would defend the U.S. Marines accused of killing innocent civilians in the Iraqi village. So he spent lots of air time criticizing how the “mainstream media” was sure to sensationalize the story in the coming weeks. Charlie would kill the messengers before any message had even been delivered.

Good talk show hosts can get their listeners so lathered up that they truly can change public policy. They can inspire like-minded folks to flood the phone lines and e-mail inboxes of aldermen, county supervisors, legislators and federal lawmakers. They can inspire their followers to vote for candidates the hosts prefer. How? By pounding away on an issue or candidate, hour after hour, day after day. Hosts will extol the virtues of the favored candidate or, more likely, exploit whatever Achilles heel the other candidate might have. Influencing elections is more likely to occur at the local rather than national level, but that still gives talk radio power.

By the way, here’s a way to prognosticate elections just by listening to talk shows: Except in presidential elections, when they will always carry water for the Republican nominee, conservative hosts won’t hurt their credibility by backing candidates they think can’t win. So if they’re uncharacteristically tepid, or even silent, about a particular race, that means the Democrat has a good chance of winning. Nor will hosts spend their credibility on an issue where they know they disagree with listeners.

…This brings us to perhaps the most ironic thing about most talk show hosts. Though they may savage politicians and others they oppose, they fear criticism or critiques of any kind. They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.

…But the key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners. And they feel victimized because many liberals and moderates have ignored or trivialized their concerns and have stereotyped these Americans as uncaring curmudgeons.

Because of that, there will always be listeners who believe that [they] are the only members of the media who truly care about them.

Political scientist James Joyner wrote Feb. 21, 2021:

[Rush] Limbaugh’s schtick ultimately transformed the conservative movement in destructive ways because it showed how lucrative playing to the predudices of an aggrieved base can be… …[A] business model that depends on keeping people riled up and feeding their belief system will inevitably become mean-spirited and dishonest. Discussions of nuanced differences of emphasis—which is where politics in a democracy should naturally gravitate—aren’t enough to get millions to tune in for three hours a day, every day. No, the opposition must be monsters out to destroy all that the Good People hold dear.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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