Pundit wannabes can be little more than 'quote chimps'

Some reporters no doubt have had to suppress chuckles reading the inevitable spate of stories in which pundits handicapped the prospects of new fall TV series, among them one called “Animal Practice,” an NBC sitcom co-starring an adorable Capuchin monkey.

That’s because in our private, more acerbic moments, scribes occasionally refer to the entertainment beat’s frequently interviewed experts with a simian nickname, “quote chimps.”

Becoming a quote chimp largely requires three key attributes: A willingness to express an opinion or pithy comment regarding pretty much anything; a reputation for availability on short notice, especially when reporters are working on a tight deadline; and virtually no conscience in those instances when events, with the benefit of hindsight, prove them woefully wrong.

Without naming names, those who follow the industry closely can no doubt think of media analysts, advertising execs and academics that quickly come to mind.

Becoming such an expert is not unlike working as a columnist or critic. Yet while some of these authority figures are clearly smart and insightful, years spent covering TV as a reporter taught me those adjectives hardly apply to everyone. Indeed, there were times when I caught myself in mid-conversation with a source, thinking, “Why am I interviewing this person? I clearly know a lot more about this issue than he does.”

Perhaps that’s why you don’t see many academics featured in this space, unless there’s a compelling reason. Freed of the requirement to solicit such input, I normally don’t, unless someone’s expertise is truly germane.

For reporters tethered by the bounds of objectivity, however, the need for official-sounding third parties to elaborate on a theme can often make or break a story, and the best practitioners seek to cultivate a wide variety.

As with so many things today, however, speed is usually of the essence, and does little to enhance depth or perspective. Few pressed to instantly assess the fortunes of pilots likely had the benefit of actually watching more than a couple of minutes of them before Memorial Day, which is a bit like reviewing movies based solely on the trailer.

Moreover, even fewer print or TV outlets have the luxury of employing as many specialists as they once did, meaning reporters and producers are frequently left casting about for the next warm body they can find. Nor does it help that even college professors have become savvier about promoting themselves as pundits, often having PR departments circulate their names to discuss the hot topic du jour.

The strategy can work. In those instances where you can’t reach a preferred source, as musician Stephen Stills might say, quote (or in TV circles, book) the one you’re with.

The dizzying demand for talking heads obviously isn’t confined to coverage of media, and if that’s your principal field, one hesitates to even contemplate what kind of empty nonsense about politics, economics, sports and science we’re being fed under similar circumstances.

Indeed, the appetite for telegenic “political strategists,” whatever those are, remains one of D.C.’s true growth industries. And just to bring matters full circle, it’s probably no accident people use the analogy of a monkey throwing darts to demonstrate how random analysis of many of these disciplines can be.

Advertising Age, for example, has already assembled its picks of what’s “hot” and “not” among TV’s fall 2012 newcomers, and to its credit acknowledged batting (charitably) a mere four out of seven last year — only slightly better than a coin flip.

In any event, the next major spotlight moment for pop-culture observers between now and September will come with Comic-Con in July, when media gatekeepers will be dazzled to discover, yet again, that people clad in funky costumes who know a great deal about “Star Wars” have suddenly congregated in San Diego.

All of which is a way of saying that if by chance you work in entertainment and have experienced the irritation associated with a quote chimp flinging feces in your direction, don’t take it too personally.

Because while it’s overly simple to fall back on the adage, “Nobody knows anything,” however authoritative some of these experts might sound, a lot of them are just monkeying around.

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