Magazine article American Journalism Review

The Quote Machines: They're Everywhere, a Handful of Scholars and Pundits with an Opinion for Every Reporter's Phone Call. Is There Anything Wrong with Turning Again and Again to the Usual Suspects, or Should Journalists Try Harder to Diversify the Expert Pool?

Magazine article American Journalism Review

The Quote Machines: They're Everywhere, a Handful of Scholars and Pundits with an Opinion for Every Reporter's Phone Call. Is There Anything Wrong with Turning Again and Again to the Usual Suspects, or Should Journalists Try Harder to Diversify the Expert Pool?

Article excerpt

Larry J. Sabato, who bills himself on the paid speaking circuit as "probably the most quoted college professor in the land," recently donated $1 million to the University of Virginia.

That sum of money--estimated to be 12 to 13 times the scholar's annual salary--makes Sabato, 52, the most generous faculty member the university has ever employed. Actually, it's one of the biggest gifts an active professor has handed to a school anywhere.

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So where did Sabato get all this cash? "Thank goodness for compound interest," the mustachioed pundit told the Washington Post the day his gift was announced. "It's amazing what you can live on eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese for dinner."

Still, a prudent lifestyle and savvy investment decisions hardly explain Sabato's beneficence. The scholar has amassed mounds of extra cash writing 23 books and moonlighting as a public speaker. He's a successful pundit whose words and face blanket the newspapers and airwaves, appearances that boost his profile and his cachet on the speaking circuit.

Commentators like Sabato who speak frequently to reporters have earned a reputation as easy quotes or dial-a-quotes. Harried reporters on deadline can phone these scholars at any time to get a quick and pithy comment on a remarkable range of subjects, from missile defense to the Mississippi Delta. And in an age in which government officials often speak anonymously or on background, reporters depend on analysts with real names to provide information--even if they don't always have much of substance to contribute.

But many editors and some reporters, suffering from quote fatigue, say overuse of these scholars has created something of a permanent commentariat. Such a "punditocracy," as The Nation's Eric Alterman has called it, is thought to dispense a numbing conventional wisdom, as more obscure analysts who offer fresh insight or bring greater expertise to a particular topic are neglected. Critics argue journalists should work harder to plumb opinions from a vast expanse of sources.

"If there's some name that keeps coming up and getting in stories, I'll try to urge reporters to get other sources," says Michael Abramowitz, national editor at the Washington Post. "Reporters should always be trying to challenge their assumptions about things. If we're talking to the same people all the time, we're not challenging our assumptions."

Some news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press have officially and unofficially blacklisted certain ubiquitous analysts over the years, banning reporters from using them in articles.

While official bans are less common, it has become routine for individual editors, say on a national desk, to forbid reporters from using certain pundits as sources. Many editors interviewed for this article would only admit such prohibitions anonymously. "I have told my reporters not to use Larry Sabato anymore," says the editor of a publication that covers Congress. Besides Sabato, the mainstays of this likely-to-be-banned list include Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, Stephen Hess and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report and John Pike of Globalsecurity.org.

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A sign of their quote-giving prowess: From September through March, Ornstein garnered 95 mentions in U.S. newspapers, while the others received 127, 49, 89, 93 and 67 mentions, respectively, according to a Lexis-Nexis search.

Jeffrey Birnbaum, a Washington Post columnist who has worked at Fortune magazine and the Wall Street Journal, says using a myriad of sources "adds to the credibility of what you write." He explains: "It can be lazy to use the same people over and over. It appears the reporter lacks imagination. …

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