Confessions of a TV Pundit
An honest assessment, warts and all, of what it's like to go on television and talk about politics — and how the production of modern punditry works.
What it’s like to be a pundit
Being a pundit is weird. I sort of stumbled into it by accident, and soon, I was on your screens, a nodding, talking head that formed one-eighth of a cable TV octobox. But because punditry is a relatively opaque world, and since most people haven’t had this strange experience, I figured I’d devote an edition of The Garden of Forking Paths to explaining the world of live media commentary.
I’ll give you a warts-and-all glimpse into how it all works, what it’s like to be a pundit, highlighting some hidden aspects of our media—and why, in crucial ways, the system is broken.
For the last eight years or so, I’ve regularly appeared on TV and radio to analyze global—and particularly American—politics on national outlets, from MSNBC and the BBC to CNN and NPR. My university once asked me to tally up all the appearances; I surpassed 1,000 interviews a few years ago, almost all unpaid.
There have been memorable ones. My first TV interview was about a terrorist attack in Tunisia (I had just conducted field research in Tunis). I was visiting my parents in Minnesota, so hadn’t brought formal clothes; I had to borrow my Dad’s tie. I had a sports watch on, and when the interview ended, my heart beat was hovering around 180 beats per minute—the physiological equivalent of an all-out sprint.
Then, there was the time an Al-Jazeera producer asked me how to pronounce my name. “It’s Klaas — sort of rhymes with floss,” I replied. A few minutes later, the news anchor introduced me: “Joining us now: Dr. Brian Floss.” (Lesson learned).
Perhaps my favorite was a phone-in show on British radio, where a caller—Paul from Watford—sneered at me over the phone as he alleged that I was the kind of person who wore a “vegan knitted jumper” and then challenged me to name a single policy that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign advocated for. “I’ll name 10,” I replied, and did so. The host, Andrew Castle, chimed in helpfully: “Alright, Paul from Watford. You just got done by Professor Klaas.” (To be fair, I was wearing a jumper, which is what British people call sweaters).
Amusements aside, how does all of this work behind the scenes? And what’s gone wrong with how the endless array of commentary media produce and interpret our news? What are analysts told before the interviews? Do pundits get paid? What is “narrative bias” and why can’t you ever say “I don’t know” in answer to a question? Are there ever discussions that are “off limits?” It’s time to spill the beans.
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