Pick a day. Any day. There’s a good chance that David Axelrod has been quoted in a major American publication. Take August 29, 2019, a nice-sounding day. Joe Biden has been telling a story that doesn’t add up, about pinning a star on a naval officer. Critics accuse him not of lying, but of mental decline. The Washington Post publishes the scoop. Axelrod shares it on Twitter. “@JoeBiden is a gaffe and embellishment machine,” he observes. “But if you read to the end of this story, it also reflects something that is a real strength, and that is his empathy.” Axelrod’s take is cited in follow-ups by FoxNews.com and The Guardian. The Associated Press runs a piece, by Bill Barrow and Thomas Beaumont, quoting him. “Where it becomes problematical is if it’s seen as evidence of some sort of decay,” Axelrod tells them. “That is obviously a danger.” The New York Times also publishes an article about this, by Katie Glueck; Axelrod is quoted in that one, too. “In this story you have the risk and strength of Biden, the risk being that he is a gaffe-prone guy,” he says. “But on the other hand, he projects extraordinary empathy, and that empathy is a huge strength.”
After a Labor Day hiatus, Axelrod is back. On September 6, Maggie Haberman quotes him in a piece for the Times about the GOP canceling some primaries. On September 8 he appears in a New York Post column about Biden’s blunders. On September 11, Axelrod writes an op-ed for the Times about how to defeat Donald Trump. On September 12, Axelrod is a lead source for a Politico article called “ ‘Why Are You Pissing in Our Faces?’: Inside Warren’s War with the Obama Team.” Later that night, he is quoted in yet another Times piece, this one coauthored by Glueck and Matt Flegenheimer, about a Democratic debate. “There’s just a real anxiety about not making a mistake,” Axelrod says, among other things.
Axelrod—nom de guerre: Axe—is the Waldo of pundits. He shows up everywhere. From the first Democratic debate, last June, until the coronavirus-hastened end of the primary, journalists at major publications reached him for comment an average of once every other day. (I ran the numbers.) That doesn’t include the vast secondary market of articles citing things he has said on Twitter; on CNN, where he is a senior political commentator; or on either of his two podcasts. Part of what makes Axe, who is sixty-five, such a trusty pundit is that reporters don’t consider him a pundit. He was the strategist behind Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, meaning that he is on the political A-list and his insights haven’t yet fossilized. Early on, he was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, making him a member of the tribe. He’s liberal, but not boringly partisan. He’s establishment, but tends to avoid Beltway platitudes. Who wouldn’t want to talk to David Axelrod, a hard-nosed politico in the person of an approachable frump? His trademark walrus mustache, now shaved off, is hard to unsee.
What really makes him the pundit king, though, is something more pedestrian. Axelrod calls reporters back and gives them good quotes. “He speaks in very complete sentences,” a campaign reporter told me. “Fluent sentences are obviously really important.” Not only that—he uses metaphors and analogies. Pete Buttigieg needs to “keep the balloon in the air.” Obama sees himself as a “ref, not a player.” Biden is like Mr. Magoo. The more Axelrod’s name appears in print, the more journalists call him, reinforcing his credibility. (The Axe economy runs on a pyramid scheme.) If you want an editor to put your story on A1, he is a good guy to quote.
“Pundit,” from the Hindi pandit, itself from the Sanskrit pandita, originally referred to a Brahman scholar or wise man. Is Axelrod a wise man? Maybe he’s more like a Greek oracle, known as much for his pithy aphorisms as for his predictions. For reporters on deadline, pithy aphorisms are good. When I asked some of them why they called people like Axe, they mostly preferred to stay anonymous, so as not to offend their sources or out their own questionable methods. One journalist introduced me to the term “quote laundering,” in which you elevate the value of your premise by getting a supposed expert to say it for you. Sometimes you need a voice on the record to polish off a story full of anonymous quotes. Sometimes you see a good tweet from a pundit, and then get him to repeat it for you in print. (See: the New York Times, August 29, 2019.)
What winds up on the page is not necessarily revelatory. “There’s a tendency to quote people who stay between the forty-yard lines of the Republican and Democratic Parties,” Jonathan Tamari, a political reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, told me. “One of the reasons a lot of us missed what was going on in 2016 is probably that a lot of the people who get quoted very often, who we go to for insight, live by the traditional rules of politics.” Donald Trump didn’t play by those rules, and his victory blindsided the commentariat.
After the shock of Trump’s win, many political reporters vowed to rethink their approach. Except they didn’t. There was no discernible change in habit, and pundits multiplied. Overstuffed cable news sets now resemble NFL pregame shows. (Jonathan Mahler, of the New York Times Magazine, called them “Last Supper–size panels.”) To what end? Writing in the New Republic, Walter Shapiro, a veteran campaign reporter, ticked through the various “narratives” that dominated pundits’ chatter in February alone: “Joe Biden will limp to inevitable victory; Bernie Sanders is the likely delegate leader; it’s a Sanders-versus–Mike Bloomberg race; welcome to a contested convention in Milwaukee; and after the Nevada caucuses, Sanders is unbeatable.”
Then covid-19 began ravaging the United States, and the presidential campaigns dried up. If the Trump era inflated a pundit bubble, I thought, maybe the pandemic would pop it. So, like many others before me, I called Axelrod. He was quarantining with family in Arizona and picked up his cellphone without recognizing the number. How was he doing? “My anticipation was that I was going to be talking every week about the primaries,” he said. “It became obvious as March began, and particularly as March wore on, that that wasn’t going to be the case.”
He hadn’t been on-set at CNN since March 17, two weeks earlier. “I think it was probably the last time there was a large assembly of people there,” he said. “We were already observing social distancing—our panel was shrunken, so we could space out more.” The writing was on the wall. At the end of the night, somebody joked, “See you in November.” The good news was that if CNN needed him back, he’d be on call. “They sent me equipment,” he said. “I’ve got a little rig in my house, so I can go on the air when necessary.”
I asked Axelrod what he made of the coronavirus. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime—hopefully—pandemic,” he said. “The suffering is obvious, and the outlook is unclear. So the campaign, like every other aspect of our lives, has been overtaken by the virus. If you’re a commentator on politics, you’re kind of a spare part in the garage.” How did it feel to be a spare part? “Eh, I think it would be colossally obtuse and unfeeling to complain about that,” he replied. “I personally want to see, on television, experts. I don’t want to see bloviators about politics.”
As ever, he knew just what to say. Still, his comment made me wonder if Axe and company were in existential crisis. Would pundits be swept aside by a new demand for facts over opinion? Or would they simply flip themselves upright, like tide-swept crabs, and keep on talking?
David Broder and Hunter Thompson walk into a bar. It’s about 3pm on a sweltering weekday afternoon in June 1972, in a Midtown dive called the New York Lounge. Broder, forty-two, of the Washington Post, is an ultra-square obsessed with the virtues of the two-party system. He sips a Coke. Thompson is Thompson. He drinks beers and margaritas. With them is Thompson’s Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Crouse, who drinks scotch and will write this up in his book The Boys on the Bus. Thompson is up four hundred dollars on Broder, from betting on various state primary elections. Broder is trying to account for his bad prognostications, which also appear in print. “The most distressing thing about covering politics,” he complains, “is that the guy who was absolutely right, whose wisdom was almost breathtaking one election year—you go back to that same man for wisdom some other year, and he’ll be as dumb as dogshit.” His takeaway: “I think it would have been useful for me to get out of Washington more.” Instead, Broder returns to Washington, never leaves, and rides out a storied Post career as a centrist pundit.
For more on the roots of modern punditry, I called Shapiro, who has covered every presidential campaign of the past forty years. Foundations were laid in 1966 with William Buckley’s erudite PBS debate show, Firing Line, but the pundit industry, Shapiro figured, really took off in the early eighties, when the Broders of the world started appearing on TV. “I blame everything on The McLaughlin Group,” he said, referring to the syndicated political shouting match refereed by John McLaughlin. (The original show ended its run after McLaughlin died, in 2016, though a McLaughlin-less McLaughlin has since resurfaced.) “The fact is, there was money to be made in aggressively mouthing off on TV, because you became famous and that meant you got to go on the corporate speech circuit.” (Those gigs pay well.) McLaughlin debuted in 1982, the same year as CNN’s Crossfire. From then on, the live-argument format propped up an entire class of well-compensated blowhards. “George Carlin said there were seven words you couldn’t say on TV,” Shapiro told me. “Now there are three: ‘I don’t know.’ ” (If Shapiro ever wants to get into the punditry racket, he knows his way around a one-liner.) And so we have Morning Joe, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Circus, and engorged debate-night iterations of Anderson Cooper 360.
Let’s take a moment to define terms. A pundit can’t simply be a person who broadcasts his political opinions in public. In the age of Twitter, that describes too many people. Rather, a pundit must be sought out, like a village elder. By my definition, a talk radio host or an academic or a high-volume social media poster is never by default a pundit, but can become one as soon as other credentialed people begin calling.
Because pundits are anointed, rather than self-made, they tend to be typecast. One of the most abundant species is the never-Trump conservative consultant, such as Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, John Weaver, and Mike Murphy, who hosts a podcast with Axelrod called Hacks on Tap. Out of favor with the GOP, they are free to throw bombs while maintaining the insider credibility of apostates. Schmidt is known to give you whatever you want to hear in the most colorful, flamboyantly obscene terms. Wilson sees the world through a Trump-crime-syndicate lens, and will say so. (These are some of the same gurus whose credibility was supposedly damaged when the candidates paying them lost to Trump, in 2016.) They know their audience, and are happy to serve.
There are also the Trump-whisperers. Salena Zito, a former columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, scored a book deal and a CNN contract on the strength of a phrase: Trump’s supporters, she wrote, “take him seriously, but not literally.” Jeffrey Lord, a former Ronald Reagan aide who was living with his ninety-seven-year-old mom and trying to write thrillers, became CNN’s first pro-Trump pundit after publishing a few positive pieces about him in the American Spectator. There are the popular historians, like Douglas Brinkley, Michael Beschloss, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. There are the electeds who become more famous on TV than they were in office. Harold Ford Jr., an ex–MSNBC fixture, pioneered that art form. CNN’s Bakari Sellers, a former state representative from South Carolina, is the next generation.
In 2019, CNN hired Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, a left-wing pac. She was one of the few pro-Sanders commentators on cable news. Because the pundit economy tends to reward people who are established, the insurgent left has had a harder time breaking through. Krystal Ball, a progressive who cohosts a show on The Hill’s website with a conservative commentator named Saagar Enjeti, was poised to become a national star, until the nomination slipped from Sanders’s grasp. The pundit economy doesn’t run on merit. And mostly, it rewards people who answer the phone.
If the old way to monetize punditry was landing on the speechmaking circuit, the new way is landing a cable news contract. Pre-Trump, CNN thrived on developing stories: the O.J. chase, Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon spill. But after Jeff Zucker took over the network, in 2013, he struggled to keep it relevant in the absence of breaking news. MSNBC and Fox News found themselves better positioned to cover the polarized politics of the Obama era. Then came Trump, who started running for president in 2015. Zucker, who had presided over The Apprentice during a past life at NBC, stuck him on TV at every opportunity. Rallies were carried live; Trump called in constantly.
In August 2016, an underappreciated shift occurred. Steve Bannon replaced Paul Manafort as Trump’s campaign chairman and tilted the effort toward a right-wing base. Trump halted his regular interviews with CNN; instead, he started calling it names. CNN filled the void by hiring people to talk about Trump. Enter the pundits. Most of them were adversarial; then there were the handful plucked from obscurity to speak in his defense. Partly, that was for balance. Mostly, it was for entertainment. “The political-panel strategy was purely for television ratings,” a former CNN executive told me. A typical scenario: CNN runs an outrageous Trump statement by a formerly obscure Trumpist who then contorts herself into knots to defend Trump, provoking an anti-Trump talking head to go ape. Instant conflict. “Obviously the panels became a point of controversy, leading up to and beyond the election,” the former executive added. “All noise, no news.”
I called David Gergen, a Washington Post writer and longtime CNN pundit, to ask about the recent proliferation of his kind. He was sheltering in place on Martha’s Vineyard. “Some of the younger people are just terrific, some of the most promising journalists,” he said. “Some other people who walk through, it’s like, where do they find these people?”
In 2017, Zucker described his growing contributor network, as the pundit ranks are called, as “characters in a drama.” “Everybody says, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,’ ” he told the Times Magazine, the latter being a twenty-nine-year-old pro-Trump law student he started putting on the air. “But you know what? They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.” This past April, McEnany was named White House press secretary.
“I used to have anxiety dreams about accidentally agreeing to go on some other TV channel.”
There are two classes of paid CNN pundit: “commentator” and “analyst.” Commentators tend to be partisan. Axelrod is a commentator. Analysts are subject-matter experts. Within the analyst class, there are a handful of major subcategories: legal, national security, political, and, now, medical. Print journalists are well-represented in this class: Haberman, of the Times, was one of the political analysts hired in the Zucker era; Jeffrey Toobin, of The New Yorker, has been a legal analyst for CNN since 2002. Some people have “senior” in their titles; others don’t. It’s not clear what this signifies. Punditry has been a major growth area since 2015; CNN won’t reveal precise numbers, but a high-ranking person at the network told me the roster now includes somewhere under a hundred fifty talkers.
CNN contracts tend to run for one or two years. The salaries aren’t public, but network sources told me that they ranged from $25,000 to more than $200,000. One pundit revealed, without a name attached, a salary in the high five figures. Almost everyone else I asked said, after awkward pauses, that they didn’t want to disclose their earnings. Lucky for me, in March, the Hollywood Reporter published financial disclosure forms of ex–Trump officials, revealing how much Fox News had compensated certain people before they joined the administration. I figured the paychecks were comparable across networks. From 2013 to 2017, Scott Brown, a former US senator from Massachusetts, got $175,000 a year. (He is now the US ambassador to New Zealand.) Anthony Scaramucci, who had a crash-and-burn stint as White House communications director, earned $88,461 as a Fox Business Network contributor. John Bolton, the former national security adviser, was pulling $569,423. Axelrod, who used to have a Saturday show on CNN, and still hosts a CNN podcast called The Axe Files, is likely paid on the high end. (When I asked him the amount, he wouldn’t say.)
Once contributors sign on—at CNN, at least—they’re free to go on any of the network’s shows they like, by negotiating directly with producers. Outside podcasts, radio, and speeches are usually fine. The only thing they can’t do is sleep with the enemy. “I used to have anxiety dreams about accidentally agreeing to go on some other TV channel,” a CNN political analyst told me.
That creates a strange dynamic with the legions of on-staff CNN journalists, armed with original reporting, who find themselves in competition for airtime with talking heads—some of whom, like Haberman, have allegiances to other outlets. “They have a stockpile of weaponry, and they maybe sometimes aren’t as strategic about who they have and how they use them,” the former CNN executive said. “There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and only probably six hours in the programming schedule that really matter.”
Working as a TV pundit is some of the easiest money in journalism. Setting aside the election night workhorses, the average contributor probably isn’t on air for more than thirty minutes a week. (Other kinds of labor are sometimes involved: Lord used to get ferried three hours each way from his home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, every time he went to the studio in New York.) If producers need you, you’re on retainer, and supposed to show up. But you’re not exactly obligated. “If they asked you on every day, you could say no,” Wajahat Ali, a commentator CNN hired last year, told me. “At the same time, there’s an unspoken rule: if you keep saying no, they’re not going to call you anymore.” And then they might not renew your contract. Besides, Ali said, he likes going on television. The exposure has been nice. In the past, when he did cable for free, “It was, ‘Oh, here’s the Muslim guy.’ ” Now, having built up relationships with CNN producers, he’ll go on to discuss any number of things. “It’s been really good. I get to flex.”
And, really, what otherwise crummily paid writer is going to pass up $75,000 to speak his mind for a few minutes a week on national TV? Which, of course, poses a problem. It is famously verboten, outside the realm of tabloid journalism, to pay sources. The theory being, you can’t trust what someone’s saying if he’s saying it to get paid. Yet on cable, the practice takes place at all hours.
CNN has a pundit czar. Her name is Rebecca Kutler. A nineteen-year veteran of the network, she has for the past five been scouting and courting contributors. We spoke in April. Kutler, forty, was hunkered down at home with her family in Bethesda, Maryland. “This part of the industry has grown a lot in the last few years,” she told me. I asked why. “Well, there’s more networks and more competition for the best experts—to be able to showcase them. In order to do that, the business has changed a bit.” The trend toward enormous political panels has required her to do more hiring; the general theory seems to be that a channel-flipping viewer should easily find someone relatable to root for. As such, diversity—of race, gender, ideology—is crucial. It also helps if you look good on TV. (The universe of print-quoted pundits tends to be more white and male.)
I asked Kutler what she seeks in contributors. “I wake up every day trying to think about, ‘What is CNN covering in the news, in the week and month ahead? Do we have the best experts in the world to explain that to our audience?’ ” Kutler brought in Preet Bharara, the superstar ex–federal prosecutor; he went on to discuss abuses of power in the Trump White House. She scooped up Andrew Yang a week after he dropped out of the presidential race; he dissected the performances of his former rivals. Once pundits have been put on air, two factors are essential, Kutler said. One: “You have to have real expertise and bring a differentiated point of view.” Two: “You have to be a clear communicator. You have to be able to take ideas in your head, your heart, and share them clearly and concisely on TV.” You need to speak in complete sentences.
“Conventional wisdom is a perilous thing.”
On Hacks on Tap, Axelrod and Murphy shoot the shit about politics for an hour; gurgling beer-pouring noises are piped in to simulate a tavern atmosphere. On March 19, Axelrod began the show in a state of puzzlement. “I can’t figure out what the hell is going on here,” he said. “Let me tell you what’s bugging me, you guys. I was trying to think about how to start this podcast. [Murphy] mentioned the primary. That’s what we do, right? We cover the great pageant of democracy, and we bring that sort of strategist view to it.” But the primary had ground to a halt. Their purpose wasn’t clear. Murphy put a finer point on it: “Real life has now punctured the bubble of political bullshit in Washington.”
Across pundit-land, one could hear the sound of screeching tires. Gergen told me that he was using his hiatus to read Marcus Aurelius. Michael Steele—a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, now an MSNBC pundit—said that he had been getting bumped. “Instead of coming in on an A block in between 7 and 7:15 on what used to be Hardball, you’re now coming in on C or D block.” Not only that: because President Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings began at 5:30pm, any chance of appearing on-screen in the early evening was all but shot, Steele said. “Yesterday, I was on Ari Melber’s show in the beginning, but then the president’s press conference went to 7pm.” Ali told me the last time he was on air was March 3, for one of the Super Tuesday panels. “Being the son of immigrants, I’m like, ‘You guys pay me every month—I want to be useful,’ ” he said. “Another part of me is like, ‘This is coronavirus. This is a global pandemic. Maybe the world doesn’t need to hear more political punditry.’ ” Ali’s contract would be up in June, and he’d been discussing his predicament with fellow talking heads. “Will they retain us? Are they all in on doctors? Nobody knows.” Pivoting, Ali got in touch with The Atlantic and wrote a couple of coronavirus pieces for its website.
This is an exceptional time, yet the pause on political pundits is in fact an unusually bracing version of something that happens regularly. In 2019, thanks to the Mueller investigation and then impeachment, federal prosecutors were in vogue on cable TV. By early 2020, they had been booted for politics people. A while ago, Ali was talking to a CNN legal analyst who brought up the meme in which a boyfriend is checking out a hot chick in full view of his girlfriend, who looks on appalled. At the time, the legal analyst was the girlfriend, CNN was the boyfriend, and political pundits were the hot chick. Then came corona. Suddenly, doctors were the hot chick, and everyone else was the girlfriend. (Later, the news would change course again, as the nation filled with protests against police brutality, and CNN would forget about its new doctors for a while.)
Cable news shifts mercurially from one story to the next; certain pundits, whatever their realm of expertise, wind up filling the gap between breaking news and ground-level reporting. Sometimes, that means they have to reach past what they really know. “Part of what I think is troubling about the modern media template is, technology has allowed us to do everything remotely, including, you know, polls up the wazoo,” Axelrod said. “One place where news organizations have cut back is on travel. My neighbors in Chicago couldn’t imagine Donald Trump winning, and my neighbors in rural Michigan, where I have a place, could not imagine him losing. Most journalists live in the first environment, not the second.” It’s hard to speak on behalf of the country when you see only a fraction of it. And, as covid-19 reminds us, it’s impossible to predict the future.
Surely, some pundits must realize that what they say is ephemeral and often wrong. In 2005, Philip Tetlock, a social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, published Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, a seminal book on political prediction, examining eighty thousand forecasts made by two hundred eighty-four political “experts” from 1984 to 2003. The pundits may as well have been flipping coins; the worst prognosticators tended to be the most famous. One explanation: pundits aren’t really interested in accuracy. Quoting Richard Posner, the jurist, Tetlock argues that pundits traffic in “solidarity” goods, rather than “credence” goods. We absorb punditry, in other words, not because we’re interested in truth, but to ratify our political identities.
Or maybe pundits aren’t self-aware. I asked Steele if the Trump era, or the fallout from the pandemic, had led him to reconsider any of the wisdom he’d banked in his career. “Nope,” he said. I asked Steele if Republican support for the largest economic stimulus package in United States history, designed to prop up the wrecked economy, had made him rethink any of his small-government principles. “Nope,” he repeated. He dismissed the idea, he said, “that you get into a crisis and change what you believe and walk away from that.”
Scrambling for takes early on in the coronavirus outbreak, the commentariat didn’t drape itself in glory. On March 11, after several weeks of lying about or minimizing the crisis, the president delivered a formal address from his desk in the Oval Office. “Trump’s tone tonight more serious, a welcome change,” Gergen tweeted. Several days later, Trump participated in a briefing. “He is being the kind of leader that people need,” Dana Bash, CNN’s chief political correspondent, said, praising his “tone.” Interspersed with these appearances were an attack on “Sleepy Joe Biden” and a smirk upon being told that Sen. Mitt Romney had entered protective quarantine (“Gee, that’s too bad,” Trump said). It took a while for the pundits to catch on.
On March 24, Hacks on Tap returned with its latest installment. The hosts debated how Joe Biden should engage with voters in quarantine. Murphy was nonplussed by the campaign’s troubled efforts to beam Biden to the internet. “It undercuts the competence thing,” he said. “If they can’t put together a live feed, then how is he going to handle corona 3.0 in two years?”
Axe agreed. “That’s what the Trump people have picked up on,” he said. “They are sniping at him about the quality of his broadcasts.” He took a beat. “I don’t know that it means anything,” he added. “I don’t know that anything means anything.”
One day in April, I spent my waking hours watching CNN. I was looking for pundits. Between 10:30am and noon CNN featured on-the-ground covid-19 reporting from Shanghai, Rome, and Brooklyn. At noon, the network aired Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefing. At 2:12pm Anderson Cooper interviewed Sanjay Gupta, the chief medical correspondent. Around 6pm, I watched Trump’s daily briefing. At 7:07, CNN cut away from the briefing for Erin Burnett OutFront. (MSNBC kept the briefing on.) Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, commented on the president’s remarks: “A stunning performance by someone who clearly has his back up against the wall.” At 8:25pm, Cooper interviewed Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader. At 8:44pm, CNN phoned an outside political analyst—At last, I thought, after a bleary-eyed day mainlining cable news—Josh Dawsey, a Washington Post White House reporter. At 11:48pm Haberman called in. But I didn’t see anybody discuss the campaigns, except insofar as they reviewed Trump’s leadership performance.
I asked Kutler about the new era. “We went about hiring some of the best infectious-disease experts and doctors, to help our audience once again understand what’s happening,” she said. She named a few of them. Was it difficult to transition from political pundits to medical experts? “It hasn’t been a challenge at all,” she said. “Doctors are usually pretty great communicators.” In June, Ali, the political commentator, did not get his contract renewed. Kutler called to let him down gently, saying that he was a casualty of CNN’s turn to covid-19 coverage.
By then, prime-time viewership was up 117 percent from 2019. Zucker told the Times, “Between now and November, there’s no chance it’s a normal political year.” Even as the Black Lives Matter movement bumped the virus off front pages and cable news ran live coverage of the protests, he maintained that covid-19 would remain the “principal story of our time.”
Still, the coronavirus is, of course, also a political story. And CNN continued to employ plenty of political pundits. After not too long, the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic became the dominant theme of Democratic attack ads. That pundits remained relatively muted during the same period seemed doubly interesting, since the era in which they proliferated was also defined by unpredictability. When the universe of Trump has felt out of control, the pundits have rushed in with tidy narratives to help restore order. They weren’t just characters, as Zucker would have it. They were storytellers, too. And Axelrod, as a tribune of the Obama era, was—for a certain kind of political junkie—a particularly trustworthy narrator.
When I asked Axe why he left politics for media—first at MSNBC, in 2013, before jumping to CNN, in 2015—he said that he didn’t intend to be a partisan talking head. “Temperamentally, you know, my orientation is to try to be calm and to be reflective, and I think there’s actually a need for that now,” he said. “Everybody is so reactive.” Rather, he hoped to serve as a kind of elder, available to impart his forty years of wisdom about professional politics unto younger generations. He had served in campaigns and in government, at the highest level. “There are other people like that,” he said, “but not many.” (Karl Rove, James Carville—figures in the emeritus stage of their careers.) “The thing about commentary,” he said, “is that it’s better if it’s informed.”
No doubt there is comfort, during times of uncertainty, in watching seasoned practitioners hold forth with conviction. But that doesn’t mean pundits should be considered essential workers. There’s only so much sagacity that can be conveyed in a seven-minute TV segment or a two-sentence quote. Even before the virus struck, there were too many bloviators. As Axelrod put it, in a Hall of Fame Axe-ism, “Conventional wisdom is a perilous thing.”
Gradually, though, as summer dawned, campaign coverage started to pick up; the pundits were reenlisted. Maureen Dowd, working on a column for the Times about bats, viruses, and White House bloodsuckers, called Axelrod for a quote. He gave her what she needed. “Trump is like a vampire!” Axe told her, adding an expletive that the Times couldn’t publish. “You’ve got to drive a stake right through his heart.” A few weeks later, Axelrod waded into the national conversation about systemic racism, offering an out-of-the-blue mea culpa in the Washington Post, headlined, “I thought I understood issues of race. I was wrong.”
Wanted or not, the talking heads will continue to pop up. As they do, blame not the Axelrods, who do their best to say smart things when reporters call, but the media outlets that use pundits as a crutch. “If I look at my email, at six or seven inquiries, I just try to hit as many as I can,” Axelrod told me. “If people think I have something to offer, if I can help illuminate something, then I’m gonna respond.”