futile determined effort to expand his public intellectual brand, your humble blogger was on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC for about an hour this AM. It was a veeeeery interesting experience. Now, I know that some readers of this blog aspire to poison me and take my place on the FP masthead punditry themselves. So, as a public service, this is what happens when you go on a Sunday morning talk show: imagine the Law & Order chunk-CHUNK! going after each paragraph:
WEDNESDAY: I receive a polite email from one of Melissa's segment/booking producers, who we'll call "M", asking if I want to be on the show this Sunday. Having never done this kind of punditry before, and having my previous obligation for the weekend cancelled, I accept.
Immediately after accepting, I experience two contradictory emotions. First, the fear builds that they will email back the same day and say, "uh, we just re-checked our Rolodex, and.. [laughs] we have no idea who thought you merited being on television." At the same time, I realize I'm going to have to watch the rest of the prime-time Republican National Convention speeches. At which point I let loose a strong of profanities [What if had been the DNC instead?--ed. The same number of profanities would have been released.]
THURSDAY: I talk with M again, who runs down the planned topics with me -- the RNC, the DNC, the state of the election, and gun violence. Immediately I have a slight quandry -- my expertise is in international relations, not electoral politics. Do I dare to think I can play in the sandbox for a Sunday morning talk show? At which point my inner media whore screams, Gollum-like, "YES!! WE WANTS TO BE ON THE TV!!! IT'S OUR PRECIOUS!!"
This is, as near as I can determine, the First Commandment of Televsion Punditry -- you have to be secure enough in your abilities to chat with authority about issues outside your intellectual wheelhouse.
FRIDAY: To make my inner media whore proud, I start reading up on gun violence statistics. I also read as much commentary as I can about the Republican National Convention. Whatever intelligence I gain from the former I lose by reading the latter.
SATURDAY: Full disclosure: Melissa and I were political science colleagues at the University of Chicago back in the day, so I'm familiar with her style and her politics. That said, I haven't been a regular watcher of her MSNBC show, so I tune for the first half-hour in to get a sense of the roundtable. Clearly MHP leans juuuuust a little to the left. This raises an identity issue -- am I supposed to be wearing the hat of "defender of conservatism"? It's not a role I've been comfortable with as of late. Or am I gonna wear the "dispassionate, snarky observer of the political scene"? I feel much more comfortable with that hat on. In all likelihood, it's going to be a little from column A and a little from column B.
LATER ON SATURDAY: If you're going to be on roundtable for radio/television, there's a 98% chance you will need to do a "pre-interview" with a producer so they have a sense of what you're going to say during the conversation. So I have that conversation with M, during which I learn that the topics have been jiggled around a bit and all those
minutes hours of sketchy detailed online research into gun violence stats won't be worth much. Instead, we'll be talking gay marriage. Which is fine, I will rally with yet more Wikipedia-surfing intense study of primary texts. And, of course, that segment will be moved as well. So, the Second Commandment of Television Punditry is that the schedule will always change.
EVEN LATER ON SATURDAY: The MHP show is classy -- they took care of all the flight/hotel/car service logistics. So by Saturday night I found myself in a comfortable midtown hotel with a lovely view of Central Park. Surfing the web furiously to research for Sunday AM, I see that some fireworks broke out on MHP's Saturday show after I switched off to pack. Melissa was responding to the panel's most conservative participant making a point. Ruh-roh.
To prep, I take notes on each of the "blocks" or segments that I'm supposed to weigh in on. I'm a professor and an academic, and therefore alwasys feel better with notes.
SUNDAY MORNING PRE-SHOW: I get to 30 Rock on time, which means I'm the first panelist there.... or so I think. In actuality, the two female panelists -- NYU's Cristina Beltran and the Center for American Progress' Aisha Moodie-Mills -- are in makeup. As they enter the green rom, I quickly comprehend that I am in deep trouble, because I am not nearly as pretty. As the clock ticks towards 10 AM, and no one comes to get me, I am petrified that I have been typecast as the splotchy-faced redneck surrounded by urbane alluring panelists. Before this scenario can play out in even weirder directions inside my head, however, M sends me to makeup. They apply as enough powder to my face to fuel at least two Dunkin' Donuts franchies -- but it works . My family later informs me that I looked good, so many, many thanks to those professionals at MSNBC.
SUNDAY MORNING, 10 AM-11 AM: OK, having done my first hour of Sunday morning chat -- which you can watch here, here, here and here -- I have learned the following effects on one's senses when three cameras and numerous klieg lights are pointed in your general direction:
A) Time speeds up. Seriously, that hour flew by. Every time I was feeling like we were getting to a good part of the conversation, we hit a commercial break.
B) Almost all prep work is useless. I knew exactly what I wanted to say in response to the first question asked, and I did that competently. After that, whatever good punchy things were in my notes might as well have been left back at home for all the use they were to me. Part of the issue is visual -- you don't want to be looking down at your notes. Another part of the issue, which I've blogged about before, is the academic weakness of trying to directly answer the question.
C) Really, cameras can make you stupid. If you mangle your words during an ordinary conversation, or even when giving a speech, you can take a moment and regroup. If you mangle your words during a panel show, you become acutely aware that you're screwing up, which compounds the problem. Another panelist will be happy to enter the breach. On at least two occasioons, I had written down a better answer than the one that came out of my mouth during the program.
SUNDAY MORNING, 11 AM: I need to get to the airport to come home, but I find two pieces of critical feedback from the experience worthwhile. The first was the thumbs-up that Moodie-Mills and her partner give me as I exit the green room. The second is an anonymous email I soon find in my inbox:
Drezner........Why are you such an idiot? Your appearance on MSLSD was laughable and embarrassing. It's really sad and embarrassing how you liberal bedwetters continue to be brainwashed by your worthless president. Why can't you clowns form a coherent thought on your own? Exactly, because you buffoons are mindless robots programmed by your worthless president. Barnum and Bailey have nothing on you clowns. What do you call a basement full of liberals? A whine cellar. Keep up the good work loser................
Why, it's... it's a troll!! I've made it!! I'M A REAL PUNDIT NOW!!!!!
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.