America’s Next Great Pundit: A Close Reading

The Washington Post Pundit Contest: A Close Reading


America’s Next Great Pundit
Here’s your chance to put your opinions to the test—and win the opportunity [1] to write a weekly column and a launching pad for your opinionating career! [2]

Start making your case. [3]
Use the entry form to send us a short opinion essay [4]
(400 words or less) pegged to a topic in the news [5] and an additional paragraph (100 words or less) on yourself and why you should win. Entries will be judged on the basis of style, intelligence and freshness of argument [6], but not on whether Post editors agree or disagree with your point of view [7]. Entry deadline: Oct. 21, 2009 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Then get ready for the great debate.
Beginning on or about Oct. 30, ten prospective pundits will get to compete for the title of America’s Next Great Pundit[8], facing off in challenges that test the skills a modern pundit must possess[9]. They’ll have to write on deadline, hold their own on video and field questions from Post readers. (Contestants won’t have to quit their day jobs, but they should be prepared to put in about eight hours a week[10] for three weeks.) After each round, a panel of Post personalities will offer kudos and catcalls [11], and reader votes will help to determine [12] who gets another chance at a byline and who has to shut down their laptop [13].

Eyes on the prize.
The ultimate winner will get the opportunity [14] to write a weekly column that may appear in the print and/or online editions of The Washington Post, paid at a rate of $200 per column [15], for a total of 13 weeks and $2,600 [16]. Our Opinions lineup includes a dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, regulars on the national political talk shows and some of the most influential players inside the Beltway[17]. We’ll set our promising pundit on a path[18] to become the next byline in demand, the talking head every show wants to book, the voice that helps the country figure out what’s really going on[19].

So what are you waiting for?
Enter Now

1. Here the writer employs dramatic irony: the phrase “win the opportunity” suggests a positive outcome, something that is ‘won,’ while the word ‘opportunity’ serves as a subtle announcement that the only thing that will be ‘won’ is something that, by definition, does not yet exist. This inherent contradiction is possibly meant to reflect the main character’s own self-contradictory impulses (the Post, we are learning, cannot seem to decide whether it is a proud news organization or a journalistic joke), or to symbolize the many paradoxes inherent in modern journalism, or to suggest, more broadly, the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence.

2. Exclamation marks are meant to inspire enthusiasm and excitement! Just like punditry!

3. Here the author suggests, through clever exploitation of shared professional terminology, a core connection between pundits and lawyers. This, in turn, serves as a subtle reminder to readers that there is, in fact, a profession that the American public hates even more than it hates pundits.

4. Per the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term ‘essay’ derives “from M.Fr. essai ‘trial, attempt, essay,’ from L.L. exagium ‘a weighing, weight,’ from L. exigere ‘test,’ from ex- ‘out’ + agere apparently meaning here ‘to weigh.’ The suggestion is of unpolished writing.’” Thus the writer cheekily implies that punditry is, implicitly, bad writing. Which—irony—of course isn’t the case! Also, since, historically, the first use of the term ‘essay’ is generally credited to Francis Bacon, the writer’s employment of the word here suggests that punditry is both delicious and non-kosher.

5. The phrase “topic in the news,” in a clear example of irony, suggests a sense of urgency to the notion of punditry. This is an implication that the writer will return to in the piece’s suggestion that one of the tests of punditocratic endurance that contest entrants will face is…writing on deadline.

6. The writer here implies that, since the contest will be judged on the basis of “style, intelligence and freshness of argument,” those qualities also form the metric upon which traditional punditry is assessed. While the writer refrains from full-fledged satire by declining to mention Maureen Dowd in this context, still, the employment of such obviously false criteria builds the piece toward an ironic crescendo.

7. Here the piece again employs irony in its implication that the op-ed section of the Post is ideologically neutral and therefore open-minded. Again, though, the fact that the writer does not mention Dan Froomkin keeps the sense of satire in check.

8. Here, a reference to the popular reality TV show, America’s Next Top Model—a series that, even as it embraces the superficiality of American pop culture, also mocks it—suggests the dialectic of substance and appearance that is common to both The Washington Post and “runway experts.” Since the creator and host of America’s Next Top Model is Tyra Banks, the invocation of the show suggests as well that the Post is on its way to becoming, in some undefined way, “the next Oprah.”

9. Here the writer’s terminology contradicts the content of the previous sentence: “Challenges” and “skills” are suggestive not of America’s Next Top Model, but rather of the skills-based challenges made famous by Bravo reality shows like Top Chef and Project Runway. Not only does the contradiction forward the sense of irony in the piece, but the invocation of reality TV also invokes pundits’ tendency to squabble, cry, inexplicably refer to themselves in the third person, and proclaim that “I didn’t come here to make friends.”

10. The writer here, presented previously as an omniscient narrator, “unwittingly” reveals that the typical pundit dedicates the equivalent of one work day each week to the business of punditry. Thus, we have a suggestion of a disconnect between the writer and a higher figure of authority—suggestive, in turn, of the Foucaultian notion that there is no such thing as an author, and also of the

11. ‘Kudos and catcalls’ suggests quirky lightheartedness! The Post has a sense of humor!

12. In invoking this vague version of democratization, the writer condemns the type of cheap ploys that news organizations are currently using to suggest reader participation without actually having to rely on it. Again, irony.

13. Through the employment of a false parallel—the byline on the one hand, and a powered computer on the other—the writer subtly suggests the core absurdity of the contest it describes.

14. The writer, in reiterating the use of a term used at the outset of the piece, brings a circular logic to the piece overall. This, in turn, suggests the vicious cycle that is the feedback loop of punditry. Also, the circular nature of history.

15. An implicit insult to The Huffington Post, which has made a practice of snapping up Post writers after frustration/disillusionment/pessimism/firing has caused them to leave the paper.

16. A sly challenge to the conventional wisdom that journalists can’t do math.

17. In the use—seemingly lacking in both irony and self-awareness—of the traditionally negative term, the writer cleverly invokes the accusations often leveled at political pundits: living in the “Beltway bubble,” keeping themselves isolated from the rest of country, generally behaving like privileged elitists who traffic in omniscience when, in reality, they are held in the prisons of their own delusions, etc.

18. The writer’s use of alliteration here pays linguistic tribute to ur-pundit and language-lover William Safire.

19. The piece’s final line offers the ironic crescendo that its text has been building toward—via, in particular, the absurdity inherent in the idea that a talking head can “help the country figure out what’s really going on.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.