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Carlo Rotella

Why academics turn into robots on TV

Academics have a lot to say, but mostly turn into robots on TV, radio

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AS WE embark on an election year, the population of academic talking heads on TV and radio has begun to increase. Like deer in the suburbs, academic talking heads are always threatening to overpopulate the mediasphere, and in an election year it’s as if a boom in sprawl has been coupled with the extinction of natural predators. Suddenly, political scientists and other professors are everywhere, nibbling hedges and saying, “Well, Bob, it’s complicated.’’

Often, their cameo is a waste of everyone’s time, especially their own. The scholar typically wants to add nuance, perspective, and depth to an overly simplified public discussion, to correct common misunderstandings and undo the pat conclusions retailed by political operatives. But the producers of the show just need somebody to say X, and what often ends up happening is that the scholar either says X or refuses to and ends up saying nothing. Either way, everyone’s left unfulfilled, like after a Bill Belichick press conference.

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I don’t do much stand-up talking-head work, but I’ve had my own experiences like that. For instance, a few years back, after writing a magazine profile of Governor Patrick, I went on a morning TV show. The conversation went something like this:

Host: So, Governor Patrick. Threat or menace?

Me: Well, Bob, it’s complicated.

Host: Inflexible. Love-hate relationship with the media. Low poll numbers. He’s toast, right?

Me: Well, Bob, it’s complicated.

So why did I bother? I wrote the profile because I was tired of reading the same old things about the governor — first African-American governor, drapes, and Cadillac — and wanted to say something less rote and more useful about him. I went on TV to talk about it because it offered a chance, however fleeting and illusory, to inject fresh perspective and language into the field of opaque ritual chatter surrounding the governor. That appearance happened to be on Fox, but the template I carry around in my head for such an ambition and its pitfalls comes from a talk show I heard on NPR almost a decade ago.

The main guest was an eminent social scientist who had recently published a massive study of sexuality and the city. The host asked, “What’s the headline here?’’ The distinguished guest patiently explained that the study was based on an extensive survey that sampled a cross-section of urban types. The host tried again: “What was it that surprised you when you added it all up?’’ Again, the scholar painstakingly worked his way through a description of his methods to arrive at the observation that we now spend much of our lives single. It took what seemed like a long time to get to this point, and they didn’t get far in exploring its implications.

Enter the other guest, a journalist who had written an article about the subject. When the host asked her what she’d found, she gave him her main talking point: “We’re a ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ society living in a world of ‘Leave It to Beaver’-era social infrastucture, policies in corporate America, and government policies.’’ Having delivered that crisp takeaway, it turned out she didn’t have much to add beyond it. After all, she hadn’t devoted her life to studying the subject, as the other guest had.

I’m often put in mind of those two when I hear academics on the radio or TV. There’s a sweet spot between the eminent scholar who had so much to say but couldn’t find a way to say it and the media pro who didn’t have much to say but managed to get it said memorably in a few seconds of airtime. That sweet spot is the zone in which experts can gradually shift the terms of public debate by meeting the conversation where it is and taking it somewhere new. That balancing act, using familiar language to say fresh things, is not taught much in graduate school, but it’s an important skill. It’s not even late January, and I’m already sick of the election-year political conversation. Come on, talking heads; get in the sweet spot and get to work.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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