Writer Binges On Pundits

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Washington Post Magazine writer and humorist Gene Weingarten spent 24 hours watching and listening to political pundits on six televisions, two radios and his laptop. Weingarten explains why he did and why he'll never do it again.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just about every week we look through the pages of the Washington Post Sunday magazine for interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, we're talking with humorist and magazine staff writer Gene Weingarten. He spent 24 hours in the scary world of political pundustry. His word, not ours.

Ms. LAURA INGRAHAM (Radio Talk Show Host): Here's a question - do left wing activists really believe in free speech, or are they trying to intimidate opposing view points?

Unidentified Man #1: I am sick and tired of the Clinton Wars of the 90's of which I was a part. I'm sick and tired of the Bush Wars. I'm sick and tired of the vilification of both parties. You're either on my side, or you're evil.

Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Radio Talk Show Host): If Obama is the nominee, we are doomed, and you should get ready and prepared for it now.

Mr. BILL O'REILLY (Host, The O'Reilly Factor): He doesn't have a right to be in this country! He should have been deported! And this mayor and a police chief didn't deport him!

Unidentified Man #2: Our enemies are both foreign and domestic. And they are circling like sharks just waiting to attack.

MARTIN: That's just a sample of what Gene lived through, and he's here with us in our Washington studio now. Gene, welcome. Welcome back.

Mr. GENE WEINGARTEN (Writer and Humorist, Washington Post Magazine): Good to be here. Actually, it's good to be in any relatively sane environment.

MARTIN: What the hell were you thinking?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, I was thinking that I wanted to do a cover story really quickly, but it just turned into the cruddiest 24 hours of my life. You know, I've had worse 24 hours with bad health and things like that, but this was just crappy.

MARTIN: Five, what is it? Six televisions? You had five on mute, and then one as your master control. Two radios, a laptop - all turned to political punditry for 24 hours. You describe it as being like a spectator at a hanging.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Yeah, and you know, the common analogy is like trying to drink from a water, and to drink from a fire hose, but this was more like a water boarding.

MARTIN: What made it so bad?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, essentially, what was awful about it was that you have pointless partisanship, and its overheated pointless partisanship all the time. It's not so much, like can't we all get along? It's more like can't we all shut up?

MARTIN: What, first of all, what was up with the tux? You wore a tux through this whole thing.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Yeah, I was remembering something that happening when I was a young reporter and one of my friends, a colleague, was assigned to wrestle a bear. And you know, he knew he was going to get flattened, but he decided he would do it in style. So I did the same thing. I knew I would be flattened, but I tried to do it in style. By the end the evening, that tux did not look good.

MARTIN: OK, a little hostile that you did this on Valentine's Day?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: What's up with that? Now, I was with you on the whole concept until the Valentine's Day thing, and I thought, OK.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, I was hoping that there'd be some comedy and affection behind everything, but no, no, it didn't affect anything at all.

MARTIN: Was it, did you find over time - now, you you're very clear in the piece that you're a, you're of a certain political orientation. You tend to be - you think of yourself of kind of a liberal, democratic leaning person, but that people on the other side kind of got your juices flowing. Over time, did anything make more or less sense, or did it all just turn to mush?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, you know, the worst thing that happened was that midway through - there was one point in which I was listening both to Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, which is a very, very bad thing to do if you are an unreconstructed liberal like I am. And because what you end up doing is comparing them. And there's no comparison. Rush Limbaugh is better. He's funnier. He's much more interesting. He's mean, but he's mean in a way that you don't really get involved with.

You know he's kind of kidding, and so the worst thing that happened to me was that I found myself grudgingly respecting Rush Limbaugh, which is just a terrible thing to do if you're a liberal. But gradually what happens is that you get into it. And I find - I found things to really despise about him eventually. Yeah.

MARTIN: Like what?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, you know, he's very much against Obama, which is fair game. He's - Limbaugh will attack Obama in areas where he's vulnerable, and that's fine. And then I discovered that he was saying his name kind of interestingly - OH-BAAH-MAAAH. And I decided this was a racial thing. This was like, Yo Mamma.

MARTIN: To try to make him the black guy.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Yeah, to make him the black guy.

MARTIN: Do you have the feeling that - well, let's go, just to be fair about it on the other side, was there anybody on the left that you kind of got sick of? Even though you're inclined that way?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Have you heard Keith Olbermann? He's nuts! So, yeah, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINGARTEN: By at the end of the 0 well, actually he's not nuts so much as he's posturing. The same way - he's posturing the same way that O'Reilly is posturing. And you know, it's equally annoying. And I wound up turning him off too.

MARTIN: You said that you wrote, about 21 hours in, you wrote, if you care about the state of human kind, it fills you with despair. We are, as a people, bleak, and hostile, and suspicious, filled with senseless partisanship and willing to believe anything and everything about anyone. We are full of ourselves, and we hate. And we do it 24/7. Now, you're a funny guy! So when I read this it kind of stopped me short. You, did you really mean that, or were you just also aiming for effect, as well?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, it was both. But you have to remember, that was very late at night, and I actually text messaged that to a radio show that was calling for Valentine's Day text messages. And I ended that message by asking them a favor to me, as a Valentine's Day present to me, to broadcast 20 seconds of dead air. Complete silence. Nothing. And they didn't. It was just impossible.

MARTIN: What about something else, like birds singing or something sweet?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, I could have asked for that, but you know what? I was not in a sweet mood by hour 23.

MARTIN: Do you have the feeling that these folks mean it? Mean what they say? Or do you think they're just being loud for the sake of getting ratings?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: I think it kind of depends who you're talking to. But by and large, I think that they've sort of whipped themselves into meaning it.

MARTIN: Now I know you're a humorist, but I do want to get your take on this. We recently had a roundtable with some Pennsylvania voters, and looking ahead to the Pennsylvania primary, this is what one of our voters had to say:

Unidentified Woman: It used to be that the media would tell us the facts, and then Americans with head on their shoulders would make good decisions about what they thought was best for them. Now, we have to be distracted by arguments of is he black enough? Is she woman enough?

MARTIN: You know, now, now of course, we all have a fantasy about - well, some people have a fantasy about the past. It was always better. You know, back then. But you know, you have to remember, this is a country in which political leaders have fought duels. You know? They caned each other on the floor of a car. There's always been sort of scurroulousness (ph) afoot.

But I wanted to ask, do you think it's possible to roll back the clock in a way? Is it possible to cut the cord on all this punditry? Or is there no, it's just not possible, it's just the way it is these days?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Yeah, I don't think it's possible anymore because anybody can talk to anybody at anytime. You know, if you have a computer, you are a pundit. If you have a video camera, you are a video pundit. And I just don't - there's just no way of calling it back.

MARTIN: So what did you do to detox?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: I slept for a very, very long time afterwards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And how did you - did your friends and family notice any change after you had immersed yourself in this cesspool of talk?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, for two days I didn't talk. I basically didn't talk to anybody. I sort of, I stewed in my own juices because I was very sorry I had done this story.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Uh hum.

MARTIN: Tell me.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, I was sorry I had done it because it had added to my already pretty pithy brew of cynicism - more than I was happy about.

MARTIN: Oh, well, I'm sorry to hear that.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: I'm fine now.

MARTIN: I was going to say, can we help you in some way?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: This is NPR. Can we help you?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: I know. I'm all recovered.

MARTIN: Can we help you bring sensibleness back to your life?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: We're good.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Gene Weingarten is a humorist and Washington Post magazine staff writer. He spent 24 hours in hell. I mean, watching, listening, and reading the nation's political pundits for 24 hours straight. If you want to read the story in its entirety, we have a link on our website npr.org/tellmemore. He was kind enough to come into our studio. Gene, thank you so much.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Very good to be here.

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