On TV, legions of ‘strategists.’ A few probably really are.
By Paul Farhi
On TV, just about everyone with a political opinion seems to be a “strategist.” Even when they’re not.
The label is bipartisan and multi-network. CNN fills its air with people identified on-screen as either a “Republican strategist” or a “Democratic strategist.” So do Fox News and MSNBC. The broadcast networks shorthand their guests that way, too.
Apparently, the major political parties need a lot of strategy.
The “strategists” who sling opinions on TV, in fact, are many things — consultants, lobbyists, public-relations types, trade association executives. Some are even actual political strategists — though it’s hard to tell exactly who’s who and what the label means.
Take Hilary Rosen, for example. Just because she’s frequently described as a “Democratic strategist” on TV, does that mean she really speaks for Democrats?
Rosen got in hot water this week for some intemperate remarks she made on CNN about Ann Romney. Rosen opined that the wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has “never worked a day in her life,” and therefore is out of touch with women in America. Critics seized on the comments as evidence that Democrats in general, and the Obama campaign in particular, are hostile toward mothers who choose to stay at home to raise their children. (The Romneys have five sons.)
Rosen, who once headed the record industry’s Washington trade group, actually does provide strategic advice to the clients of her communications firm, SKDKnickerbocker. And many of those clients have been Democratic candidates — although at least one, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is a former Republican who is now an independent. (Rosen’s business partner, Anita Dunn, provides advice — strategy, if you will — to the Democratic National Committee, but the DNC says Rosen is not involved.)
Rosen, in fact, has no official role in the Democratic Party. Nor is she paid by the White House to spout the Obama campaign’s line — something actual Obama strategists such as David Axelrod and David Plouffe were quick to point out in the wake of Mommy-gate.
Network executives say the term “strategist” is a useful label, quickly signaling to viewers where a pundit is coming from. There’s no particular standard or set of qualifications for who gets to be described this way, they say.
CNN spokeswoman Edie Emery said her network identifies commentators as “strategists” if they “work in partisan politics,” although she declined to be more specific. She declined to comment on Rosen.
Michael Clemente, Fox News’s senior vice president of news/editorial, says guests so described have to have worked for a national-level campaign at some point in their careers. Fox News often runs more detailed graphics — known as “wings” — that flesh out a talking head’s background.
“I always think that the more clear you are and the more honest you are with viewers [about who appears on a panel], the better off you are,” Clemente says. “If you’re a really smart viewer, you already know something about a [person’s political leanings]. If some party affiliation is a fact in your background, we should say that.”
But plenty of people are described as “strategists” who aren’t — or aren’t anymore.
Peter Mirijanian has worked on four Democratic presidential campaigns and typically is described as a “Democratic strategist” when he appears on MSNBC, CNN or Fox. But Mirijanian hasn’t worked in a campaign or for a candidate in 12 years; these days, he runs his own communications company in Washington, dispensing strategy only to corporate clients.
Mirijanian prefers to call himself an analyst whose background in Democratic electoral politics gives him the pedigree to comment on current events — a title he admits probably wouldn’t fit at the bottom of the screen.
“I don’t go on TV to read a bunch of talking points from the DNC,” he says. “I don’t go on TV to assault Romney. You’re being asked to comment on the process and how it works, based on your experience.”
On the other side of the aisle, there’s Tony Fratto. Fratto, who was a White House communications deputy for George W. Bush, has told TV bookers he won’t appear on any show that describes him as a “Republican strategist.”
Why? “For a very good reason,” he says. “I’m not one.”
Fratto, a partner in the Washington-based communications firm Hamilton Place Strategies, isn’t involved in electoral politics. “I cringe a bit when I see that label, because I know it’s not true,” he says. “It sends a message that I’m a political actor, and I’m not. I still support Republicans, and I’m happy to talk to and about them. But it’s not accurate at all to call me that.”
One MSNBC executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the network declined official comment, acknowledged that the word “strategist is overused.” He said the term is applied “subjectively” and noted wryly: “There are probably more Republican and Democratic analysts or strategists on TV than there are in real life.”
As for Rosen, she apologized for her remarks Thursday. On Friday, she canceled a scheduled appearance on “Meet the Press.”
In other words, she did the one thing TV “strategists” aren’t supposed to do: She stopped talking.