Hey! Aren’t You That Guy On TV?

As part of the journalism-for-free discussion that has hit a lot of raw nerves among people in a position to write about it, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Paul Waldman mention an aspect of the issue that affects certain high-profile scribblers in major media centers, particularly Washington: The Tube, where much of the “talent” works for free: i.e., “exposure.” Here’s Waldman:

There are some contexts in which one can get paid for a television appearance, but most of the time, if you’re going on something like a cable news show you’ll be doing it gratis. I do TV with some regularity, and I certainly sometimes feel that it’s a waste of my time. There is some preparation involved if you want to do a good job, and then between getting there, getting made up (sometimes), doing the spot, taking off the makeup, getting back (although they usually do send a car for you, which makes you feel like a bigshot), the whole thing can end up taking a couple of hours out of your day. And that’s for something that can be as brief as four minutes of airtime.

One of the things about my relocation from the D.C.-area to the Central Coast of California is that I don’t have to fret about being on televison, or failing to be invited to be on television, much any more. It’s largely a blessing. I first realized this wasn’t my best medium many years ago, when I was on some show debating the celebrity GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick (now Conway), and during the first break I was feeling very good about having completely eviscerated Kellyanne when the 22-year-old producer of the show came out with a comb and started messing with my hair and muttering about my poor TV skills. On another occasion, the famous right-wing radio/TV personality Armstrong Williams had me on his show supposedly to talk “crime policy,” and before I could get my first words out he whipped up his audience into a hate frenzy and among other things said I just “looked like a liberal.” You get the drift: a face, or at least hair-style, made for radio.

Anyway, the only time I watch political TV (other than for actual news events) is when I’m visiting my father in Georgia. He habitually has MSNBC on all day long, and I’m forever spotting guests and saying “I know him,” and “I know her,” and feeling a little out of the swing of things. Then I go back to California and forget about it, other than to realize now and then I’m glad I’m not having to undergo media training to learn how to do “whole body communication” as I was once advised to do after a dazzling speech when I apparently wore the wrong color tie.

Many years ago I wrote a humor column that suggested what drove the entire chattering class competition in Washington was the desire to have a drive-thru waiter at some McDonald’s in Tysons Corner say to you: “Hey! Aren’t you that guy on TV?” Waldman offers an even more visceral motive:

[N]obody holds a gun to your head and forces you to go on cable television. If you say no, they’ll stop calling pretty quickly, because there are a hundred other writers eager to get the exposure. And also, your mom gets excited when she sees you on TV. So even if you’re not being paid, there’s that.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.