global politics, relationally

Mom, did you see me on TV?


With APSA just around the corner and chilly wind makes Cambridge evenings so pleasant it is time for some reflection on the summer break and a great opportunity to raise the topic of media appearances by political scientists. Of course I’m raising this question because it reflects my unique experience this summer. This was the summer when I revealed the media, or perhaps the summer that the media found me. Either way, as the world was going nuts (and my region of expertise, the Middle East, really outdid itself in the past few months), I got media exposure I never knew before.

It is strange how those of us who study international security benefit from the pain of others. I keep reminding myself that while 9/11 helped me get an academic job, the attack and the events that followed were not my fault. But that issue may be a post for some other time. Here I want to discuss some of the pros and cons I identified as I was going through the media circus. It is one of the many things that graduate school don’t prepare you for. Teaching in a small liberal arts college such as Haverford I cannot say that I was mentored on the question even after graduation. So I hope that such a discussion could help other. I know that I need it myself because I’m still not sure about my own position as I’m still trying to figure out whether interacting with the media is actually worthwhile. As I cannot claim to have an answer I’ll settle for suggesting some pros and cons instead of making sweeping and confident statements.
The pros of media appearances:

1. Fame and glory – the academic profession is strange. Many times it attracts people who are not know for remarkable social skills. Many are also very awkward and anxious and super fragile. And yet even though we may fear sending out our work, we love seeing it published. This isn’t just because of “publish or perish”. It is also because we all have quite considerable egos and to some extent we all wish to be successful and famous. With articles we probably reach a few people, and only few of us could ever be the big academic celebrities we hoped we would turn up to be when we were in grad school. Being on TV or the radio can give us that sweet lift to the ego, the boost we all need sometimes (or most of the times). And now, that shows are made available online a short time after your interview is over, you can even post it on Facebook and make sure that your friends, family, and colleagues that couldn’t watch you live, still get the chance to see you in your glory.

2. Public outreach – I’m not sure when, but I’m quite confident that sometime in the past somebody told me that part of our role as academics is to inform the public on questions of importance. Most of us are being regularly reminded of our role as educators because we teach (too many) classes. But the media is a great way to reach a much wider audience. And since so few “regular” people actually know what’s going on (and networks such as Fox News hardly make Americans informed people), perhaps it is our obligation, when we are asked, to disseminate some knowledge.

3. Academic institutions love to hear their name on TV – Yes, all academic institutions love it when their institutions are noted in the media in a positive connection rather than a commencement scandal. Administrators seem to care about these things, though from my own experience I’m still not sure why. Perhaps in some weird way numerous mentions of an institution are aggregated into a positive reputation which helps attract students and donors. And perhaps it is because when an institution is mentioned in a positive way all who are linked to it gain some sort of personal satisfaction. So going on TV, or doing a radio interview can endear you to your institution, particularly the bureaucrats (and we all know that it’s better to be on the bureaucrats’ good side). In a small institution you might even get some recognition from the leadership of the college.

The cons of a media profile:

1. Time – I was surprised to see how much time I lost this summer. My college is located just outside of Philadelphia, therefore TV interviews often required going to downtown Philly. It is a pretty sweet feeling when the network sends a car to pick you up (make sure to clarify to the show producers that you also need a ride back, apparently it’s not self-evident. I was once “abandoned” after an interview and had to find quick transportation home so that I’ll be able to make it to my next interview). But that takes time. Then, you sit in the green room waiting for your interview, followed by some time in the room where your interview is taking place, listening to the show and waiting for your turn. This whole thing can take a couple of hours and more, and all for a three minutes interview. Moreover, preparation before (to make sure you actually have something meaningful and hopefully coherent to say) and decompression after, mean you could lose almost the entire day because of one short interview. With experience you learn to be more efficient and lose less time because of your media appearances, but it is still very time consuming.

2. Not all your colleagues appreciate what you are doing – Here I speculate. In my small department of seven people I doubt that anybody sees doing media as a negative thing. But I can imagine that in R1 institutions there may be people who would frown on scholars becoming “media whores”. To some extent they may be right. After all, time spent on TV interviews is time not used to produce scholarly work. Perhaps political science as a discipline is exaggerating in its focus on academic publications and the endless production of theories, or the development of highly sophisticated (but of very limited use for decisionmakers) methodological tools. But at present this is the reality of the discipline, and failing to follow its imperative could lead to severe personal costs such as not getting tenure.

3. Stress – I’m a pretty anxious guy. I’m not deterred from public speaking but that does not mean it comes easy. Teaching is one way we regularly confront fear of public speaking and I actually really like it. When I teach I feel like I’m on stage and I enjoy that feeling. But every time I get into the classroom for I feel nervous for a second. But at least in the classroom I’m Caesar; I’m the most powerful person around, the king of my castle. And besides, if I don’t perform too well there is always another class coming in two days. It is very different when you are on TV. I hate being out of my comfort zone and TV is exactly that. Radio interviews are somewhat easier, but like with TV, you put yourself out there for the whole world to watch and listen.

Additional stress element is that even though the producers of a show usually coordinate with you the subject on which you will be asked to comment, sometimes the show host can still catch you by surprise with a question you were not prepared for. I’m not a politician that needs to be prepared for any surprise so going off-script can be challenging. It happened to me a couple of times. Not that the questions were not good, but in one case they were not in my field of expertise, and in the other time they required some time to think but I was forced to say something (in fact, anything) immediately. Doing media can be particularly anxiety-provoking when English is not your first language, as is my case.

4. Accountability – It is rare that academics are forced to make unqualified statements. It is really not in our nature. We know that the world is a pretty complex place. But when you are on TV you are always asked to do exactly that. I tried to make nuanced arguments but your interviewers are asking for sound bites and often get them even if you cringe inside for that. Other than the rare events when you have a long interview (NPR is a great place for that), the media does not like subtleties very much. One of the consequences is that you are caught on record with statements and predictions that could be proven wrong as events unfold. You feel stupid, and other people, if they check your previous claims, might agree. In June I went on record saying that the US should not have ground forces in Iraq. While I still stand behind that statement I do wish I was able to say more on how I would like to see US intervention in the region. And of course some things changed since that interview and as variables shift their value you need to revise your assessments.

Obviously there is no one definite answer to the question whether one should engage the media. Like so many other things it is a matter of balance. Some media can be good, whereas too much of it is bad. Being on TV and neglecting your research agenda completely is probably not a great course of action. And obviously, the stage in one career and the particular culture of one’s academic institutions also affect how much media one should do. I’m sure that there are some considerations I overlooked. I will welcome comments because as I said, I’m still contemplating the question.