Washington Post's "America's Next Great (Liberal) Pundit Contest"=FAIL

How much of a failure is the Washington Post’s “America’s Next Great Pundit Contest,” now in its final round?

The Washington Post showed: (1) the newspaper is cheap; (2) the newspaper breaks its own rules; (3) the newspaper doesn’t respond to readers/contestants; (4) the newspaper has a liberal bias; (5) the newspaper values diversity over quality; (6) the newspaper looks the other way when a pundit contest devolves into a vote-getting social networking contest; and (7) the newspaper covers up all the problems.

Zeba Khan (the young woman behind Muslim-Americans for Obama–just the type of person you’d want to be a political pundit of the Obama administration, no?) won the most votes of the final two. Here, in her own words on the website islamicate, is why the Washington Post’s contest is not a talent contest at all:

Hello Friends and Colleagues,
I am thrilled to inform you that thanks to your support, I am a semifinalist in the Washington Post’s “America’s Next Great Pundit” competition. It’s a long way from being one of the initial ten contestants selected out of nearly 5000 entries to being in the Top Three and I could not have done it without your support.

Now it’s crunch time. The two people with the highest number of online votes between Thursday, Nov 19th 8 am – 5 pm EST (That’s Today!) will advance to the final round this weekend. I need your help!

As much as I would have liked this competition to be about substance, it really has come down to who can better mobilize their networks and so far, both my competitors have been better at it than me. I wish we were being assessed and advanced based on our work but that is simply not the case.

When the potential winner of the Washington Post’s pundit contest freely admits that the competition is not about substance, you know there’s a problem!

THE USUAL DISCLAIMERS: I was one of the 4,800 contestants who did not make the final ten. I’m a consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary and a noted–though penniless–researcher of American words and phrases. My entry was about the late William Safire and the origin and meaning of punditry. (Safire preferred to be called a “maven.”) If I had advanced, I was going to produce timely essays on Ben’s Chili Bowl and the origin of the “half smoke,” the meaning of “Cadillac” health care plans (my work was used in Safire’s old space in the NY Times last week), the naming of the New York “Yankees” (they were called the “Highlanders”), and much more. All original stuff.

“The ultimate winner will get the opportunity to write a weekly column that may appear in the print and/or online editions of The Washington Post, paid at a rate of $200 per column, for a total of 13 weeks and $2,600”

“May” appear in the print and/or online editions? A mere $200 a column? A total prize fund of $2,600? Professional pundits all across the blogosphere chuckled at the cheapnees of it all.

The rules: “Entrants may not have previously written or contributed to a regular column in a major national publication in print or online. Sponsor shall determine, in its sole discretion, what constitutes a ‘regular column’, ‘major national publication’ and ‘contributed’. Directors, officers, employees and independent contractors of Sponsor and its affiliates, subsidiaries, divisions, and advertising and promotion agencies involved in this Contest (as well as each member of their immediate family and of their household) are not eligible.”

Of the final ten selected, two contestants wrote for or contributed to a major national publication. Mara Gay writes for The Atlantic, surely a “major national publication.” Gay was eliminated and did not make the first cut to five.

Courtney Martin made the final three. Martin writes a bi-weekly column for The American Prospect, former home of Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein. Also, Martin had a piece published in the Washington Post in 2008, making her either an “employee” or “independent contractor.” Martin used The American Prospect (“a major national publication”) and friendly feminist online publications to successfully network into the final three. Although the Washington Post clearly knew of Martin’s connection to The American Prospect, this was never identified in her brief bio.

Martin should have been eliminated because both the professional Washington Post critics and online commenters thought that her work was the worst of the lot, giving further evidence that the pundit contest was about networking and not skill.

I wrote a letter to the editor that WaPo had broken its own rules regarding Mara Gay and Courtney Martin. I wrote to the WaPo ombudsman, who forwarded my email to the contest. I wrote directly to the contest. No one replied.

While the rules give WaPo “sole discretion, what constitutes a ‘regular column’, ‘major national publication’ and ‘contributed’,” I wanted an explanation how such clear rule violations could be allowed. Surely, no discretion is that wide!

Of the ten contestants selected, nine had ties to Obama. Two contestants directly worked on Obama campaigns. Only one conservative was selected–an assistant secretary of commerce for George W. Bush. His unexciting entry (“Sara Palin’s Second Act”) received the most online comments and the fewest votes and he was quickly eliminated.

Accuracy in Media correctly pegged WaPo’s contest right from the start:

The Next Liberal Pundit At The Post
By K. Daniel Glover | September 29, 2009
The Washington Post is conducting a pundit contest to find “the next Dana Milbank or Eugene Robinson.”
Bright, young conservatives need not apply. The Post has a habit of hiring up-and-coming liberal pundits. Odds are good that the contest is aimed directly at that market.

If readers alone were to pick the winner, a conservative writer with a strong social network might stand a chance. But you can bet that the “panel of Post personalities” won’t include more than token conservatives, and the panel will be the final arbiter.

A conservative has about as much chance of winning a contest to be the The Washington Post’s next pundit as he or she does of becoming the “Opinion Media Monitor” (aka, “Secret Agent Editor”) at The New York Times.

In the video challenge competition involving the final three contestants, Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart and all three contestants showed strong hatred for Republicans.

The selected group of ten met most of the diversity requirements. Five men, five women. three blacks, two Muslims. One old white guy made it (Burton Richter)–a Nobel prize-winning physicist, fer crying out loud!

The Washington Post surely must have realized that the contest was a failure when the first round vote totals came out. Three young social networkingchampions–Kevin Huffman (1465 votes), Courtney Martin (1145 votes), and Zeba Khan (970 votes)–had sent the Nobel prize-winner packing. Burton Richter had received a mere 166 votes, although his science essays were written with authority and clearly top-five material.

Zeba Khan’s first round opinion essay, “No place for faith,” was a “been there, done that” piece stating that not all Muslims are terrorists. It was supposed to be about 750 words, but came in about 200 words too short. No person could possibly conclude that this opinion was better than the Nobel prize-winner’s opinion, or (as the voting went) six times better!

The online Washington Post seems to be hiding the contest on its web pages, further helping the vote-getting of the better-networked “pundits.” Again, I questioned the rules and didn’t receive the courtesy of a reply. The WaPo professional critiques ripped Courtney Martin as the worst of the pundits, all-but-noting that the contest voting was rigged.

I’ll still look up the Washington Post to read Charles Krauthammer.

Whether the modest talents of Kevin Huffman or Zeba Khan win the contest, it no longer matters.

The first-ever Washington Post “pundit contest” didn’t play straight and wasn’t based on talent.

In the 1990s, professor Gerald Cohen and I discovered that New York City’s nickname, “the Big Apple,” came from 1920s New York Morning Telegraph track writer John J. Fitz Gerald. He had a brother, James Fitz Gerald, who wrote a sports column in the Washington Post. I wrote to WaPo asking any information about James Fitz Gerald. WaPo’s publisher put me in touch with a 90-year-old retired Baseball Hall of Fame sportwriter named Shirley Povich (father of Maury Povich).

Shirley Povich (who died in 1998) wrote back a letter that was more than I could have ever expected:

I was aware, too, of his brother, John (we called him Jack) FitzGerald, who was probably the finest racing writer of his time (N.Y. Telegraph,) and I encountered him often at the tracks.

Like James V., Jack FitzGerald was also very literate and a cut above the other racing writers of that era. His Big Apple Column was so well known and well-read. Unlike James V. he was a rotund chap and a fine story teller who was not averse to bellying up to a bar.

I find it most fascinating that he was responsible for affixing Big Apple to the Big Apple. On my next visit to the Big Apple I will take delight in strolling the southwest corner of 54th and Broadway and contemplating the story of Jack FitzGerald and his new immortality.

It’s a wonderful story, but I guess it can’t be printed in the Washington Post.