Media Beat, June 7, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

The Distant Stars of the Pundit Elite

Are you tired of TV politics shows? We're talking about the programs starring elite insiders -- pundits who've grown so close to the money and power corrupting Washington that they're almost blind to the corruption.

Here's our proposal for a totally new TV show, with a panel of interesting, informed, down-to-earth people: perhaps a teacher, auto worker, nurse, retiree, small-business owner and homemaker.

Instead of chatter among Washington's nobility, the show would feature people of ordinary means debating the issues and questioning those in power. It would be less like ''Meet the Press'' than ''Meet the Oppressed.'' Less like ''This Week With David Brinkley than ''This Week With Roseanne Conner'' -- the canny heroine of the TV sitcom.

A rule would be needed: If any of our working-class pundits evolve into stars who accept $ 30,000 for a one-hour speech, they'll immediately be fired -- and replaced by folks whose incomes are about $ 30,000 per year, close to the country's median family income.

Why is a new show necessary? Because the existing punditocracy has lost touch with most of us. They don't just inhabit a different neighborhood, but a different planet.

Let's pilot a spacecraft around the present-day studio of ABC's ''This Week With David Brinkley.''

GEORGE WILL: The well-connected Will insists that viewers have no right to know about his connections.

In April, Brinkley's executive producer asked Will -- before interviewing Bob Dole -- to reveal that his wife would soon be communications director of the Dole presidential campaign. Will claims the disclosure was unnecessary, even though Dole's answers to Will's future questions will be partly shaped by Will's wife.

In recent weeks, Will has crusaded -- on the Brinkley show and in his syndicated column -- against Bill Clinton's sanctions on Japanese auto imports. When newspapers reported that Will's wife, Mari Maseng Will, was paid $ 199,000 last year to lobby for the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, Will denied any duty to disclose that fact. ''I was for free trade long before I met my wife,'' said Will.

On our proposed non-elite pundit show, an auto worker moonlighting as a pundit would probably offer a different perspective on how ''free trade'' affects the U.S. economy.

COKIE ROBERTS: Few would mistake Roberts for a working-class hero. Her parents were members of Congress. Her brother, Thomas Boggs, is a top corporate lobbyist. Her establishment views are imbued with an attitude that she was born into power and deserves to stay there.

The June issue of American Journalism Review shows that Roberts resents scrutiny of how she supplements her six-figure income from ABC-TV and National Public Radio. Two months ago, she received $ 35,000 to speak at a Junior Leagubusiness conference -- a fee supplied by JM Family Enterprises, a giant Toyota distributor.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Cokie and Steven Roberts, her TV-pundit husband, picked up $ 45,000 from a Chicago bank for a joint appearance last October. Now that's togetherness.

On Feb. 20, the couple was scheduled to speak at a gathering of Philip Morris executives, but Steve had to appear alone when Cokie canceled at the last moment. Philip Morris, the world's biggest cigarette manufacturer, is a force on Capitol Hill -- the beat that Cokie Roberts covers.

On our ''outside the beltway'' show, it's likely that a nurse on the panel -- having seen the effects of tobacco up close -- would be less cozy with Philip Morris.

SAM DONALDSON: A multimillionaire who has pocketed up to $ 30,000 per speechto corporate gatherings, Donaldson holds down the ''left wing'' of the Brinkley show. He has also pocketed $ 97,000 in federal wool and mohair subsidies in the last two years for owning a ranch in New Mexico. He lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

On the people's pundit show, we'd probably hear a different perspective on agriculture from a family farmer struggling to earn in a year what Donaldson earns from a single speech.

DAVID BRINKLEY: The program's host exudes an air of being above it all. But he's not above taking fees -- $ 18,000 per speech -- from Washington's monied interests. Last July, Brinkley joined Donaldson, Roberts and other ABC News stars in protesting the network's hesitant limits on outside lecture fees. Maybe a real-life Roseanne Conner - whose smart-alecky outlook doesn't stem from an elite perch - would be an ideal host of a pundit show.

Is there a TV network ready to air this ''outside the beltway'' show? Are there sponsors ready to fund it?

As Roseanne would say, ''Don't hold your breath.''

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