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Volume 3, Number 9
September, 1998

Round Up the The Usual Suspects

by David Mandell

Americans need help. That's what news producers tell us. We can not watch a political speech, criminal trial, or foreign policy report without an "expert" telling us what it all means. Turn on any news program and you see the same faces pontificating on the latest event of the day. In the business they are called the "usual suspects", named after Claude Rains' famous remark in the film Casablanca.

Giving expert opinions is an annoying growth industry. The job description for being an expert is not overly taxing. It requires lots of free time to call reporters and sit in television studios. Professors, retired generals and diplomats, former campaign managers, and criminal defense attorneys specialize in being quoted. A select few are allowed to sit next to the anchors on the network news shows, but most settle for cable, UHF, or even the lowly world of print journalism.

This past year has been wonderful for experts. The Monica Lewinsky scandal, conflicts overseas, divided government, and the continued expansion of cable television, talk radio, and the internet have created new forums for these "talking heads".

The Lewinsky saga has increased the seemingly inexhaustible supply of lawyer-experts spawned since the introduction of cameras in the courtroom. No lawyer can top Professor Alan Dershowitz when it comes to finding an open microphone. From his perch in academia, he is readily available to vent outrage at a prosecutor or express shock at a defense attorney's incompetence. Practicing law from a television studio is easier than in a courtroom. With prosecutors generally forbidden to discuss their cases, former ones fill the void. Need a comment from an ex-prosecutor? The Washington D.C. husband-wife team of Joseph DiGenova and Victoria Toensing is always free. The joke in Washington is that the couple has logged so much time in Geraldo Rivera's cable studio, they owe him rent.

Another featured ex-prosecutor is former Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. "Judge" Walsh, as he likes to be called, spent six years and forty million dollars of taxpayer money, lost all of his major cases, but still has found a niche as an expert.

War may be hell but it is terrific for television experts. Every confrontation with Iraq brings out the living room warriors with their maps and pointers. Professors and retired diplomats race to the studios with the speed of a cruise missile. Professor Roger Fisher, author of various books on negotiation, is often featured. Professor Fisher is usually saddened by our failure to sit and reason with adversaries. No one is quite sure what crisis Professor Fisher has ever resolved, but there he is, ready to assist wherever a camera is found.

Retired Secretaries of State usually insist on speaking with the network anchors which means cable channels must settle for ambassadors. Never mind that the Ambassador, as they are forever called, has not made a decision in decades, the title never leaves them.

Political issues are another staple. Shows like CNN's Crossfire or CNBC's Hardball need political commentators. The same faces appear nightly on these roundtable style programs. Inevitably the experts are another inside the beltway couple, Mary Matalin and James Carville. Matalin helped run the disastrous Bush re-election campaign and Carville managed the losing re-election campaign of New Jersey's former governor, James Florio. The duo goes through its paces, exchanging cute insults and repeating the same vapid analysis on every show.

There once was a saying that those who can, do, and those who can't teach. Today people say those who can, do, and those who can't, become experts.
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