Flacks push ‘experts’ to fill talk void

IN “ANNIE HALL,” Woody Allen said that he “can’t get with any religion that advertises in Popular Mechanics.” Similarly, I have a hard time trusting any experts who hire publicists to ensure everyone knows about their expertise.

Welcome to the new world of punditry, where relentless demand for talking heads has created a burgeoning industry to place those heads in venues to prattle, whether on cable TV or as print analysts.

The impetus behind this push is mostly mercenary, as email inquiries pour in trying to generate exposure for those with books to peddle or lecture halls to fill.

Take Jina Bacarr, author of “The Japanese Art of Sex,” offering to “provide talking points, answer your questions and even submit her own review” in connection with the upcoming movie “Memoirs of a Geisha.” The message included an appropriate sample question: “Are geisha prostitutes?” In this environment, it’s easy to see where the definition of “whoring” can become a bit muddled.

Still, there are political agendas, too, linked to sound-bite glory, highlighted by the recent introduction of SheSource.org, a Web site devoted to getting women quoted more often as experts. To underscore this disparity, the announcement followed the latest dubious analysis by the White House Project, which found that women account for 14% of guests on Sunday-morning chat shows. Never mind that those shows are heavily skewed toward top elected officials, 85% of which are male as well.

Public-relations reps are more than happy to play go-between, peddling a Georgia professor to discuss Lachlan Murdoch’s departure from News Corp. or an executive search firm chief to comment on Carl Icahn’s “ongoing battle against Time Warner.”

A PERSONAL FAVORITE has always been “‘Survivor’ psychologist” Dr. Laura Brown, who is billed as an “excellent resource” on reality television as well as an authority on “recovered memories” of abuse. Should I need to write about reality TV contestants who have forgotten the abusive experience, she would undoubtedly be my first call.

There’s nothing wrong with coaxing news outlets to expand their Rolodex and incorporate different voices into their coverage. Some reporters are lazy and others are just flat-out busy. Even the most diligent can begin turning to the same old reliables over and over, making it worthwhile to seek out new names, if only to avoid having to remember that the “i” follows the “e” when quoting Merrill Lynch’s Jessica Reif Cohen.

Yet the truth is we deserve better than media that just grab the nearest press release — experts vetted more thoroughly than who has access to a fax machine. After all, the hunger for telegenic, provocative talking heads gave us Ann Coulter, who is famous for nothing more or less now than being Ann Coulter. And remember all those “security experts” crawling out of the woodwork post-Sept. 11? In hindsight, it’s enough to make you wonder why we weren’t safer.

At this stage we’ll never exhaust the appetite for authoritative types to populate inexpensive informational programming. In TV, they aren’t kidding when they say talk is cheap.

God help us, though, when we finally run out of experts.

MILLER TIME: Journalists have spent the past few days chewing upon the case of Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who spent 85 days in jail to protect a source that turned out to be Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.

Nevertheless, one jaw-dropping passage bears repeating. In her first-person account, Miller says Libby asked that as he pressed the White House’s case, she refer to him only as a “former Hill staffer.” “I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill,” she wrote.

This would be equivalent to allowing News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin to bash Disney anonymously and then referring to him as a “former cable development exec,” or enabling NBC TV Group chief Jeff Zucker to badmouth CBS News under the cover of being “a former NBC News producer.” It is blatantly misleading, freeing a source to advance a self-serving argument while presenting him as an unbiased third party.

Granted, around here the spin tends to focus on deals or ratings, but it turns out Miller’s search for WMDs wasn’t entirely fruitless after all. Alas, though, the real destruction was inflicted upon her reputation.

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