how to get a job in television punditry--with a felony on your record.
April 6, 2007 9:02 PM   Subscribe

CareerObjective: I think I have pronounced strengths in almost every area that would benefit a Television Pundit/Talking Head—as well as the strong desire to make a living at same. I also have at least one glaring drawback (hint: I’m a convicted felon) there's a lot more info inside. Feel free to skim if you'd like.

So… one time the head of my department in undergraduate told me (cobbled together from my faulty memory and a letter of recommendation he later wrote) “John, in spite of all your shortcomings as a pupil, you’ve always frankly amazed me with your ability to craft insightful and interesting analogy, and tailor it to your audience in a way that often creates for them a revelatory experience.” I was floored. Made me feel ten feet tall. Also, he was right.

Help me bring this talent to the world. I’ll give you some background, you go nuts. I’d like some honest advice, because I ask this question in complete earnestness, looking for some way to make this a reality. As trivial as this profession is, as disposable and odious as you may consider the men and women who earn their living this way, please suspend your enmity to help me realize a dream. Email any private thoughts to

I’m 30 years old, white, monolingual--BS in Geography and Economics from a State University, graduated in the bottom 25% of my class—but I still have a suspicion that by whatever objective criteria you’d like to rate the efficacy of on-air punditry talent, I’d score exceedingly high. I’m not a braggart, I swear; and I’m frankly at a loss for what anyone would get from bragging anonymously. Forgive me any self-aggrandizement—I actually pride myself on humility in my daily life.

I’m handsome. Like… real handsome, think a butched-up 6’3” Scandinavian Jude Law. I speak well, I have a charming manner and an engaging way of talking. I’m the guy people queue up to talk with at the dinner party. Suits hang on my broad shoulders like you wouldn’t believe. I have a command of the English language that exudes authority on any given subject. If my piercing, expressive eyes and straight, car-salesman teeth don’t charm you, the erudite wit and man’s-man Midwestern, lower-class charm and occasional idiomatic interjection will. The camera loves me. But these are not my main strengths.

My greatest punditry strength: an eidetic memory for historical, cultural, and economic trends, people, and events for any region of the world. Serious. If I ever read it, it’s still with me. This can be, like, party-trick-level (name every neighbor of Iran, clockwise, starting with Turkey), or it can be just… scary stupid showoff shit (the first six, “five year plans” of the Soviet Union: date adopted, stated goals, successes/failures, and historical legacy). I understand most of it… but by God I remember all of it. Matched with my rhetorical quickness, and well, I can do pretty much whatever you’d like.

I also spent time in prison. I sold a lot of weed to a cop. I haven’t broken one law since, and I paid my debt to society. No violence or coercion or fraud, or treachery. You’re helping a reformed man… not some deranged or incorrigible scofflaw.

How do I go about landing my first punditry gig? I can’t go the government route—no way to get a security clearance. I have no idea about a think-tank route, and my undergraduate grades sorta… keep me from getting an advanced degree (6 grad school applications so far, 6 rejections). ALSO: I'm not sure how keen the think-tank would be on the convicted-felon thing.

So that leaves me with what…? Christopher Hitchens started by writing. I can write “well”, but no better. I mean to say--I pity you if you pay to read what I write. Like I said—I remember all of it… understanding it (well enough to write cogently about it), well, that depends on which day you catch me.

Metafilter. I swear I will make you proud if you help me realize this dream. I got everything but the connections, and I’ll tirelessly pursue any reasonable course of action that we as a group can come up with.

(And… I’m not an insufferable egotistical trasp in real life, I promise. You’d like me. I’ve always felt the best when I’m making people feel listened to and smart and valued. I just felt like I had to get you worked up and excited about my prospects to get you on board. Some anonymous immodesty was required. Forgive me. Many thanks.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you are, in fact, all that, go the Ze Frank route, and the world's agents will beat a path to your porch.
posted by Scram at 9:11 PM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with Scram. In a time where anyone can self publish rich content and have it seen by a wide audience, all you really have to do is put yourself out there. If you're a natural like you believe you are, they will find you.
posted by saraswati at 9:19 PM on April 6, 2007

Similar to what Scram said -- you've got to get thee to a bloggery, soonest. Turn yourself into the next Instapundit, but offer *more* analysis and *less* linkage. Demonstrate your ability to integrate thoughts, trends, analysis, etc. Offering podcasts -- either audio or video -- will likely help, too, but consider holding off on that until you've got a few months worth of material.

And when you do it, please e-mail me (davidmsc AT -- I'd be interested in reading it, based on what you've written here.

Good luck.
posted by davidmsc at 9:26 PM on April 6, 2007

You're fairly lucky in that a number of political weblogs are flirting with video-blogging at the moment. So far the products have been... lacking. I echo the advice given.
posted by furiousthought at 9:28 PM on April 6, 2007

So I don't get it -- you can memorize facts and the like, but you have a hard time understanding it?

So what you want to be is a reporter. Not a pundit. Aren't pundits -in theory- supposed to digest all the thick news items and then spout out their own spin or opinions in neatly packaged sound bytes?

That means you'd have to understand what you're learning.

And with punditry, looks don't matter. You've seen some of the other pundits, right?

I'd focus more on picking a topic and understanding it enough to become an expert so you can offer your opinions, rather than trying to figure out how you can get 'air time' -- because really, good-looking people who can speak well are a dime a dozen (go walk the halls of any Broadcasting School at any University).

It's people that can actually apply the knowledge they learn that can be so rare.

For further proof of this last statement, please turn your televsion to any 24 hour news service.
posted by ryecatcher at 9:45 PM on April 6, 2007

This may come as a shock to no one, but Washington is a town about who you know. If you're not there now, either go there, or figure you'll start with local politics and move up.

If/when you're there, scope out places you'd like to work, and look for a bustling nearby bar on Friday evening. Find out who hires the position you're looking for, and try to get introduced to them. Knowing that Washington is about who you know may be good, but if you don't know anyone who knows someone, it might not be helpful. Did anyone you know growing up end up in Washington? Maybe start there.

Think of being there and meeting people, and turning on that charm and knowledge at parties as sort of mini-auditions along the way.

Oh, and for the record, I don't see your record as a problem if you're not tying yourself to a specific politician. If you're an analyst, I don't think anyone cares.

Best of luck!
posted by nadise at 10:01 PM on April 6, 2007

I am a broadcaster.

If you really, really want to do this, I suggest that you contact the Television News Center in Washington about making an audition tape and try to first get into television news.

But, for time's sake, let's get to the reality. There are lots of affable, reliably informed, talented people who really think (or think they deserve to have) the life of a "television pundit".

I think you fall into the "I deserve" category.

But, maybe you don't want to ever be happy. Hell, that would place you with 95% of the people I run into everyday.

Broadcasting is incredibly unforgiving and brutal. One day, you could be flying high, the next day Youtube could be rejecting your videos. But that kind of thing means that you would have truly made it. That kind of action means that you would have had an obit in the New York Times even if they didn't like you - because...well, just because.

Washington does not need generalists. Ryan Seacrest, Larry King, and Mike and Mike in the Morning do the city well. If you can only spout analogies and proverbs, people are genuinely going to get tired of you pretty fast. Why? Because people who are not genuine can spot their brethren quite easily.

I suggest you build some modesty. First, stop working off compliments. Egos are atrocious in broadcasting. It's tiring and demeaning to the people who have to get you work. Second, figure out what your strengths actually are. Washington is filling up with "security" correspondents and "immigration" specialists. Get with the times, people don't want generalists unless you can generalize about one major, important thing.

So, you are handsome. I'm handsome. I quit smoking two weeks ago and have lost 12 pounds since. I lift weights everyday. Women compliment me on my eyes and my color. What has it gotten me? Fuck all.

So, that leaves you with what? Well, you already said you would pity anyone paying for your writing. That is out.

And, contrary to what Nadise said, criminal records are held against everyone in Washington. You will get a background check. If you really want this to happen, the first thing you need to do is get this conviction expunged from your record or get a pardon. But, and I am being honest here because that is my job, if you can't get yourself into graduate school then you may never be able to put in the time necessary to get this record dealt with.

My bottom line: go to a party, be exactly who you described yourself to be at this forum. Then, leave. Send someone who truly cares in with a tape recorder and ask them to find out what people really think. If they think you are genuine, then by all means work to go into broadcasting.

Working to be seen is a career in itself.
posted by parmanparman at 1:44 AM on April 7, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if this would lead to a life of punditry, exactly, but if you're as charming and prone to life-changing analogies as you say, perhaps you should become a motivational speaker or spokesman for some anti-drug organization. Then your experience with drugs would be a positive, in that it was something you overcame, rather than something you're hiding.

I suppose you could then become a lobbyist, and once your name is known in political circles, then maybe you could become a pundit. But I think being a speaker/spokesman is a much more realistic step for now.
posted by christinetheslp at 4:47 AM on April 7, 2007

If you think you can generate original, meaningful content, just do it. I've worked in an office where two guys transform the corner of an office bullpen into a TV studio once or twice a week just by setting up two lighting fixtures (key and kicker/hairlight -- they use the room lights for fill) and bringing in a camera. The end product goes on national TV.

Okay, granted, these folks have a lot of production experience and very nice equipment, but the principle is the same. Buy a Lowell two-light kit (~$500). Buy a decent miniDV camera with an external mic in (~$500-$750). Buy a good lapel/lavalier mic (~$100). You don't really need a fluid-head tripod since you won't be moving your camera. (~$30). You can edit on Windows Movie Maker or iMovie, which are both free, to start with. When you're first starting out, you could probably make do with worklights from Home Depot instead of "real" TV/film lights, so long as you set the color balance on your camera. If this stuff sounds expensive, deal with it. This is a drop in the bucket in the budget for "The Real Thing," but you can get quality-enough results for low-qual FLV compression. Hell, I've shot student films with this gear.

I haven't done videoblogging too extensively so the nuts and bolts of getting that content hosted are alien to me, but I imagine you could post it to youtube then embed it in a free blogspot blog.

The point I'm trying to make is that creating "talking head" content is easy. If you can find something to say that's actually fresh, original, articulate, etc, and get a few people watching, folks will beat a path to your door, err, blog. Can't help you with getting connections, but I assume the advice above -- "get thee to DC" -- is pretty accurate.

Once you have an established support base, it'll be much easier to pitch your content to anyone in the biz.
posted by Alterscape at 5:51 AM on April 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

I went to school with a guy who is the local Rush Limbaugh wannabe, and from watching him rise through the ranks it appears that radio may be easier to break into than TV. He started out by announcing local high school football games on Friday nights, and once he got his foot in the door he kept plugging away and now has the entire afternoon show on the local AM talk radio station. Maybe not the national exposure you would like, but he is well known in town and his opinions make news.
posted by TedW at 6:08 AM on April 7, 2007

I am a television producer. I spent over a decade at the highest rated network morning television show. Many if not most of our talking head guests were not paid. They were there because they had the credibility of say, a job at a major newspaper behind them. That's why the audience cared about what they had to say. The few that were paid were hired as "contributors" who appeared regularly. With a few exceptions, they didn't make much - it was a way for them to get a lot of visibility which helped them make their money in other ways.

Many but not all of the pundits on the cable channels don't make a dime. They do it for the exposure, the ego boost and the fun. Again, many of those folks have jobs as columnists at newspapers. They've paid their dues, so to speak, and they are considered credible because of their responsibilities and experiences.

When a random guy is asked for his opinion and it is aired, it is called an MOS - man on the street interview.

Videoblogging is the way for you to go. The newspapers are becoming dinosaurs and credibility is becoming less and less important. How you look is becoming more important than what you have to say. The networks increasingly chase the audience, not the story. So I'd say, start that videoblog and soon, if you're any good at it, you may find yourself a Talking Head on TV.
posted by Kangaroo at 6:26 AM on April 7, 2007

If you want to be a podcaster or video blogger, you'll have to write your material anyway. But you say your writing isn't great, and you sound like you need a foil to riff off: That's not a pundit, that's a panelist. Or talk show announcer.

I agree with the others: You have to get your voice and face out there, circulate and schmooze. If you end up taking jobs doing voice overs for TV commercials, it may not be as personally gratifying as a job expounding on events of the day, but it makes Don LaFontaine serious money out of a spare room in their houses.
posted by ardgedee at 7:14 AM on April 7, 2007

hint: I’m a convicted felon

So are G Gordon Liddy and Chuck Coulson. Of course, their specific felonies greatly enhanced their reputation with their target demographics, so your mileage may vary.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:33 AM on April 7, 2007

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