03.25.2010 10:10 AM

From the War Room: first Campaigns and Elections column, gratis

I’ll be on the road, shortly, so I can’t get to the link to the new C&E mag, which made its debut today. Here’s my first stab at a column – which anticipated the Ann Coulter flapdoodle, but not the magnitude of it. Hope you like it.

**

Right about now – right about the time you are squinting at the inaugural offering From the War Room! – American political pundit Ann Coulter is somewhere in Canada, shrieking about something or the other.

We’re not quite sure how she got in. But one thing is for certain: we must make a collective effort to ensure that she never, ever enters Canuckistan again. Ever. We have anti-banshee importation laws up here, you know.

The presence of such a, er, famous U.S. pundit presents us with a timely opportunity to answer a few questions that I, as a charter member of the commentariat, am often asked: what is a pundit, exactly? Who gets to be one? Do the media decide, or the political parties? Do pundits get paid vast sums for their scintillating insights and witty repartee? If so, how does one get invited back? What makes for effective punditry, and what will serve to embarrass your family members and closest friends, for generations to come?

Um.

That – that little thing right there – is something that a pundit (on TV or radio political panels, at least) should never say “um.” Also: “er.” Equally unhelpful: “you know.”

To be effective, to rhetorically slay all partisan opponents within the immediate vicinity, it is essential that a pundit sounds like he or she knows what he or she is opining about. (Even when, often, you don’t.) Gaps in your banter suggest to your adversaries – and, worse, the panel’s host, and Joe and Jane Frontporch, suspiciously eyeballing the on-air shenanigans at home – that you are making it up as you go along.

Which, as mentioned, pundits often do.

The simple fact of on-air punditry is this: there is not enough time in the day to prepare for a five-minute-long TV appearance, on which any number of verbal curveballs may be tossed your way. Some hosts, in fact – like CTV’s Tom Clark, who is an expert at this – delight in surprising his Conservative, Liberal and New Democrat panelists with an unexpected question or factoid. When in receipt of same, and the fire alarm is too far away to be pulled, I simply say: “Speaking for myself only…” In that way, your political party of choice is not compelled to disown you. Which happens, believe me.

So what, you query, is a pundit anyway? Mostly, it’s a gal or guy who editorializes about an issue. He or she attacks the other side, and defends their own. That’s it: attack and defend, attack and defend.

One of the best TV and radio pundits around is the guy I spar with most often: the Conservative Party’s Tim Powers. Tim, a Newfoundland-born rugby player with a ready grin, knows one of the cardinal rules of punditry: never take the punditocracy stuff too seriously.

On air, Powers is self-deprecating when the circumstances demand it – and he also knows when to concede a point, and laugh at himself and his team. Also easy-going is his fellow Tory, former Stephen Harper comms boss, Kory Teneycke. Kory, who looks about twelve years old, never lets an opponent get under his skin, and never loses his cool. But he gets his point across, in a viewer/listener-friendly way.

TV punditry in particular, you see, is mostly about entertainment. That’s not to say there isn’t room for serious, sober reflection when on-air – and the New Democrat’s highly-respected Anne McGrath, is one of the best in the business at relating useful information in a manner that doesn’t sound like a three-hour political science lecture – but, generally, TV punditry isn’t about information. It’s about emotion.

Long, long ago – when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, and Treasury Board president Stockwell Day was there to witness them with his own eyes (sorry, I sometimes just can’t help myself) – my approach to punditry was to treat it like an exam: study, study, study, and cram as much information as possible into my tiny cranium. I would then show up at the studio, crib notes clutched in my sweaty hands, and use the minutes-long segment to recite as many statistics and facts as the schedule permitted. Dead pan.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The best approach to punditry – and, for that matter, speech-writing and scrums and legislative work – is to do what The Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan, used to do. Have one main theme, and no more than two or three supportive related themes. Stick to them religiously. Keep it simple, keep it relevant, keep it as upbeat as the circumstances permit. That’s winning political communications. That’s punditry that works.

What doesn’t work, in my opinion, is becoming the story – which the aforementioned Ms. Coulter, now jetting to and fro in Canada on her broom, does on a regular basis. What doesn’t work is indulging in rhetoric that is so extreme, so hysterical, that the only people who end up paying attention to you are other hysterical, extremist red-necked mouth-breathers (like, well, Ms. Coulter). What doesn’t work is becoming a circus sideshow. Like Ann Coulter is.

Political punditry is fun and often funny. It is no way to get rich, but your mother may be happy to see you (occasionally) on her TV screen.

And the best pundit rule of all? Watch Ann Coulter, then say and do the reverse.

Works every time.

16 Comments

  1. hatrock says:

    Excellent column Warren, especially your non-partisanship. As you mention Tim being self-deprecating, you too, sir, are the King! And speaking of column’s, not sure if you’ve noticed, but the Google ad on the left side of your webpage says “ANN COULTER. FREE! Be among the first to read Ann’s column every week. CLICK HERE [picture of Ann]”. Is that intentional or just God-given irony?

  2. hatrock says:

    I now see that the ad changes. It’s now a Progressive insurance ad. For me originally, it was Ann. Thanks, Warren. Thanks a lot.

  3. Jim Rieder says:

    A great post. nice insight to punditry, and kudoos to your comments on your opponents.

    I agree,, Anne Coulter has become a sidewhow in herself. and I would argue that most people don’t quite take the time to listen to the arguments she makes, nor get the tongue in cheek delivery she always uses. and of course now she is saddled with a series of “quotes” that will always trail along with her.
    much like your good friend Stockwell Day..

    Pundits and media types have only a short time to get a point across,, so it is best to use as much hyperbole about it..
    btw did you know that there were less than 30 protesters in Ottawa at AC’s presentation (based on eyewitness accounts) but the media kept showing the crowd that had tickets who were chanting to get in, and reporting that they were in fact the protesters.. better story.

  4. Derek Lipman says:

    Great article, WK!

    Even those who disagree with you would likely appreciate the wordplay, argumentation, and research that comprises your art.

  5. Jon Evan says:

    Well, maybe I’m kooky, but too me Warren’s def’n of punditry is just a bit of leftist spin as Treebeard from Lord of the Rings would describe as “orc mischief”. Because for me in punditry there is the obvious element missing: truth! Warren doesn’t seem too concerned with that one.

    Warren’s punditry is just “opinion” which is not necessarily true. So, me I turn it off if I sense mischief like someone is just being nice like Tim Powers is nice or if someone’s opinion is just that far removed from truth. But is there truth or is all relative? An interesting question!

    I need truth and I think I’m not alone. I don’t know how I feel about Ann Coulter but her interview on the Michael Coren show left me feeling her’s is not always mischief: she knows something. There is much truth to what she says.

    Does she have a small following? I don’t know. I do know that Fox news has a huge audience watched by both left and right. And Fox news is the most popular news around. Who listens to CBC or CTV. No one I know.

    • James Smith says:

      … right.

      What she knows is that controversy sells. When her petty unsympathetic POV gets her in trouble she often claims “I’m just kidding!”. That we are wasting time on a person who so revels in the attention that her ignorant screeds glean saddens me to no end.

      BTW, under what rock do you live where “no one” you know watches or listens to CBC or CTV?

      Really?

      You may be interested to know that in CANADA, in most of the major markets, the CBC radio morning drive show is the most listened to morning programme. But then again, perhaps you don’t get radio where you live.

      • Jon Evan says:

        James, I didn’t attack Warren; I commented on his punditry. You, however, are a typical Leftist — if you don’t like the message you take a personal swipe at the messenger. I hang with those who don’t do radio or TV. We are into newer gadgetry like iPhones and macbooks where we glean our news from various blogs and the like.

  6. Rotterdam says:

    “Canada on her broom”

    Warren Kinsella

    “take a flying carpet”
    Ann Coulter

    Well well Warren. It seems you are no different.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    I don’t know – I don’t care if she comes to Canada or not. Really – she’s just another entertainer. There may be people who are more detrimental to our society among the New Age Snake Oil group that comes up here all the time; in fact I think that the Landmark/EST/Scientology/Related Quack Cults are more dangerous to us than Ann Coulter is. The former destroys independent thinking – really; while Ann at least allows one to have a point of view and leave the room to go to the bathroom.

    Congratulations on the column; looks good. I think being a pundit on TV is something like fencing. En garde!!

  8. D. says:

    Successful recipe for Punditry:

    Clever individual+verbose+informed+edgy yet reserved+respectful+3 drinks+stand up comedian+audience (or blog).

    Add lawyer, nice meal, mix and serve.

    Works every time.

    And with no disrespect, intended to be metaphorically distilled throughout:

    Only a N****r can call someone a N****r… period. Ever. – Remember that in politics, entertainment, critique and jest, and you’ll never offend.

    So those with recommendations to travel by camel better be riding one.

    Dominic.

    solntseff1@hotmail.com

  9. Reality.Bites says:

    A huge difference between pundits like Warren, Tim Powers, Kory Teneycke & Anne McGrath and people like Coulter and Limbaugh is that those in the former group have the goal of serving their party’s best interests and helping it achieve or maintain power. The Coulters and Limbaughs of the world are out to serve themselves only – and business tends to be better when their party is out of power. It’s always easier to attack than it is to defend.

  10. Derek Lipman says:

    Tim Powers is a formidable political enemy, because he puts his ruddy, smilling face on policies that will help only the wealthiest Canadians, and hurt the shrinking middle, and expanding lower classes. But underneath Tim’s folksy hit-and-miss humour is a methodical, LSE-educated guy who knows exactly who signs his cheques. Both Powers and Teneycke are sincere people who articulate policies to the right of most Canadians.

    On the other hand, Coulter and Ezra Levant are simply fringe players who do more damage to their allies’ cause.

    • Tceh says:

      “Coulter and Ezra Levant are simply fringe players who do more damage to their allies’ cause.”

      That is why we should encourage them to speak freely and often.

      • Derek Lipman says:

        I agree on Levant, as he has zero appeal (note his failed attempt to become the Canadian William F. Buckley). With respect to Coulter, however, I disagree. She expresses visceral bigotry, and has enough “star power” and personal magnetism to tap into the worst elements of redneck/bigot psychology which could in turn, poison the political sphere.

  11. Tceh says:

    Coulter…”expresses visceral bigotry, and has enough “star power” and personal magnetism to tap into the worst elements of redneck/bigot psychology which could in turn, poison the political sphere.”

    Agreed she does all these things but does she have the power to have a lasting influence in politics? I don’t think so. She uses shock-jock tactics which a large segment of the country tire of quickly. Howard Stern could play the same venues in Ottawa and Calgary, say outrageous things about Canada and achieve the same publicity. To me Coulter’s value is in the damage she does to extreme right wing politics, most people look at her and are repelled after they hear the message. Her core support is from a small segment of society that would not dare express their bigotry in public but revel in watching an attractive blond dare do it in a speech.

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