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Peter Funt: The best talking heads lean right

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Peter Funt
Tuesday, September 29, 2015

If the GOP's presidential candidates were half as persuasive as its conservative commentators, the party would have a much easier time winning elections.

Punditry perks up in each election quadrennial. Sunday talk shows, which are more numerous than ever, get audience spikes as viewers seek opinions about the candidates and the issues.

A quick count shows an astounding number of political commentators—more than 50—across the spectrum of Sunday programs. They range from the well known, such as GOP bulldog Karl Rove on “Fox News Sunday,” to the relatively obscure, such as former Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens, on MSNBC's “Up, with Steve Kornacki.”

I've tried to sample them all and reached these general conclusions: Conservatives tend to be more compelling than their progressive counterparts, and the very best TV commentators are older, conservative, males.

In addition to Rove I would add to the list of high achievers Brit Hume, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Steve Schmidt and Newt Gingrich. Each of these conservatives has a calming, understated demeanor, coupled with an encyclopedic knowledge of facts and history that makes almost any argument sound believable.

My analysis has nothing whatsoever to do with policy or posture; it's about communication and style coupled with real—or perceived—intelligence. Rarely, if ever, do these particular pundits change my views, but they are powerful enough to make me wonder why Democrats have so few commentators with the same skill set.

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and failed presidential candidate, has a checkered past and a list of positions that should make him easy to dismiss. Yet, when he talks, I listen. Steve Schmidt, the former adviser to John McCain' s presidential campaign, speaks more crisply and engagingly than any in the gaggle of progressives that surrounds him on MSNBC.

No matter which panel they sit on, Hume, Will and Krauthammer come off like the sage adult in the room. Unappealing as their views might be to some, they have mastered engaging, scholarly tones.

Why conservatives are so good as TV and radio communicators is hard to figure out. Moreover, why there is such a dearth of progressives who can play the game equally well is even more mysterious.

We're talking here about panelists and guest commentators, not program hosts. But even among hosts, the overall picture is the same, with conservative Bill O'Reilly of Fox News far and away the most successful in both ratings and communication skills.

Indeed, the gap between right and left punditry on TV is so wide that MSNBC this month revised its program schedule, dumping much of its progressive commentary in favor of straight news.

One slight edge that conservative commentators have is that they are often willing to be cut-and-dried in their opinions, while liberals' comments are more nuanced. Real life is usually the latter, but TV plays better as the former.

On the liberal side, I love Eugene Robinson's newspaper columns, but listening to him on TV is a chore. Donna Brazile, the author and Democratic National Committee vice chairwoman, is sharp on the issues and dull on the air. These are but two examples from liberal ranks; the list is long.

Two center-left contributors who come close to matching the conservatives in commanding on-screen authority are Jeff Greenfield and E.J. Dionne. However, their messages are somewhat muted because, as journalists, they try to walk a line of political objectivity.

The shortage of effective commentators on the progressive side doesn't seem to cause damage among voters, perhaps because Democrats tend to be less reliant on the re-enforcement of pundit-speak than many Republicans. But it certainly doesn't help.

Gingrich said an interesting thing on TV recently. He said of all politicians, Bill Clinton is the fastest study he's ever seen. If he cared to try—and were it not for conflict of interest with his wife—Clinton could be the most compelling liberal commentator on TV.

As it is, conservatives are hands-down winners in this war of words.



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