Sunday, August 26, 2007

When pundits meet the President: Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Colbert

A standard measure that you've "made it" in your chosen field is an invitation to meet the president. In punditry it has different implications. In punditry there is a cache placed in being a maverick, an outspoken no holds barred personality. There is an 'outsider' aesthetic that a pundit must project. They achieve this by deriding and distancing themselves from the MSM (Mainstream Media), which they will contemptuously describe as being 'elite' and 'corporate'. They also reject Washington. By using oppositional terms such as 'inside the beltway' to describe establishment types, it cements the impression that they are the ones in touch with the common man. In the past APF pundit Rush Limbaugh has made a point of telling his audience that he is loathe to stay in Washington overnight, implying the beltway influence is all-consuming.

Meeting the President poses a bit of a quandary. On the one hand it is a personal milestone and the highest honor on a professional level. On the other hand it disturbs the illusion that the pundit is an everyman not seduced by power. There is a danger that the pundit may no longer be viewed as being impartial or maybe cowed into being less critical of the administration in the future. The remedy for this is simple - overcompensation and bravado.

Its a two step process: show humility by praising the President's admirable qualities and appreciating the honor of meeting an esteemed world figure. Then show strength and independence by assuring their audience that they spoke candidly with the President and "they had their disagreements". This allows the pundit to preserve their 'straight talker' status.

meeting president mark levin laura ingraham hugh hewittRecently 10 conservative pundits were invited to meet the President in the White House. This included APF pundits: Hugh Hewitt, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham.

Listen to the Hugh recount his encounter with the POTUS
Listen to what Mark Levin thought of the meeting

The most influential conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh wasn't included in this meeting of 10. Instead he was granted a more personal encounter
CALLER: My topic this morning is, I have heard the accounts of many of your colleagues meeting with the president Wednesday morning --
RUSH: Mmm-hmm?
CALLER: -- and I was wondering why the man who is running America, "you know it and I know it," was not there.
RUSH: Because I went yesterday afternoon and last night.
CALLER: So that was your super-secret meeting?...
CALLER: What a privilege for you, I'm sure.
RUSH: Well, it was a privilege for them.
CALLER: (Laughing.)
RUSH: You know, people have been asking me, "Well, what did the president tell you last night?" That's not it. "What did I tell the president?" is the correct question.
CALLER: (Laughing.) So he also recognizes that you're the man running the country?
RUSH: Well, who doesn't? I mean there are certain things that don't need to be said. Now, I'll just tell you this. Well, this is nothing new. I tell people this every time that I have been with him. He is the most confident man. He is a barrel of laughs. He is at ease. He is unfazed by any of the criticism that he gets. He doesn't care about it...
Read Rush' entire transcript here

Of course its easy for pundits to go the 'Macho' route when meetings are off-the-record. Its harder to project resistance during a televised encounter however as its in the best interest of the pundit to not upset the President if they intend to preserve access. There is a certain level of decorum expected, a respect for the office of the President as well as the privilege granted. These interviews when handled by like-minded pundits are often folksy, empathetic and littered with softball questions.

Neil Cavuto chooses the softball approach.
Watch APF pundit Jon Stewart, skewer Neil's performance with Bush.

Bill O'Reilly chooses the empathetic approach.
Watch Bill spending time with the president

In the early stages of the video (Talking Points), Bill reiterates the points made in this post, "interviewing a President is very different. You can be direct but you can't be disrespectful".

See more Bill O'Reilly with President here: Part Two and Part Three.
See Bill at his macho best. Also take note of how he positions himself as the second most hated person in America behind the President.

But as always there is an exception to the rule. What if a pundit doesn't want to preserve access? Stephen Colbert was a rising star in (comedic) punditry in 2006 when he was invited to roast the President for the White House Correspondence dinner. Stephen mercilessly mocked the President like any good roaster but it was controversial as many believed he went too far. Richard Cohen in an op-ed for the Washington Post wrote at the time, "The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said on a dais with impunity. This is why Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully". Read the entire op-ed here.

See Colbert's speech and judge for yourself

This balancing act also occurs in the world of wrestling. Whilst wrestlers are the masters of their domain and larger than life characters, relative to other entertainers they are still considered niche and outsider. The wrestling world often welcomes "mainstream" names into their universe, usually to boost exposure from the wider audience. Celebrities like Kevin Federline, David Arquette and Donald Trump have entered the wrestling ring in the past. The former two having won Championship belts. For the Celebrities they also have an interest in promoting themselves to a certain demographic that wrestling has unique access to. These visitors bring with them an established persona and backstory based on their real identities. These celebrity personas will compete with the manufactured personas of the wrestlers. As with any effective drama, the conflict needs to be evenhanded. The trick is in negotiating between making the celebrity visitor have their victories so their reputations are not compromised. More importantly, they must achieve these victories in a fashion that does not diminish the wrestler's aura.

A pundit has little to gain from upstaging the President. The President conversely must ensure the pundit's reputation is intact as their authentic endorsement is in the POTUS' best interest. The meeting of Pundit and President, not unlike the meeting of Wrestler and Celebrity is all about mutual advantage. Its a crossover that allows both parties to benefit from each other's reputation and pulling power. The trick is making sure it doesn't backfire.
Watch APF pundit Jon Stewart, skewer Neil Cavuto for his gushing questioning of George W Bush.
Listen to the Hugh recount his encounter with the POTUS
Listen to what Mark Levin thought of the meeting
Watch Bill O'Reilly with the President here: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.
Watch Colbert mercilessly roast the President at the White House Correspondent's dinner
Read Rush' account of his meeting with the President here

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