PunditWire LogoIt started last month when I was watching yet another news story about the 33 Chilean miners, and yelling at the TV about the 8000 kids who die every day in Africa and Asia. Why not save the kids, too? We could rescue 33 of them for the price of a dinner at Sizzler.

Not an original thought, but I felt strongly enough to consider writing something about it for PunditWire.

Until I noticed a little box on the Washington Post editorial page about their “Next Great American Pundit” contest.  First prize: you get to write 13 op-eds for the Post. Sorry PW. I entered, made their group of 50 finalists, then the next group of ten—before finishing seventh in the third round.

It was fascinating, especially after the first round, when the “public” got a chance to vote for the best finalists, no more than one time per candidate. Charges of cheating started after the first day. At least one leading vote-getter admitted it, and two others—it’s unclear— seem either to have been disqualified or withdrew out of fear they might be caught. In a contest to write op-eds perhaps about ethics in politics, three out of the top ten apparently broke the rules? Punditry is serious business here.

Why write about this?  Why run the risk of thinking my experience is interesting to readers when it might be just to me? Because the contest taught me two things about PW that in these first months of its life  might be useful to pass on.

First, some things we’re doing right. I saw that after reading the Post judges views about what blogs are “supposed” to be. Here’s one: “Blogs are supposed to be a second read, a short, sharp commentary on something that someone else said/wrote/did.” Here’s another: “the tone and point of view and subject matter are consistent.”

No. That’s like saying all paintings have to look like real life.  Blogs don’t limit writers by column inches. We can run longer posts if the substance justifies it, and we do.  Also, our tone is inconsistent, because PW took the unusual step of including Republicans and Democrats. Most blogs are highly partisan and even, in a kind of same-ideology marriage, link only with others feeling the same way. Here, Mike Long writes the lead post one day and Leonard Steinhorn the next.  Why not? Let a thousand pundits bloom!  PW’s approach winds up being more unusual and useful than I thought.

But the second was about something we could do better. Each day finalists had to write blogs on assigned topics. Write a comment after watching the O’Donnell-Koons debate in Delaware, the editors would say. And we would.

Seeing clashing views on exactly the same question from articulate people trying to be honest turned out to be just plain interesting.  Yes, the big op-ed pages promote different viewpoints. But Charles Krauthammer, say, and Richard Cohen usually don’t write about exactly the same event. It’s harder to pick out exactly where they differ. Why can’t PunditWire help clarify that by encouraging writers to argue more often with each other—in two ways?

First, we could use the comment box to disagree about what’s posted. Will that sometimes hurt the feelings of people we know? Let’s get over it. We can disagree, even harshly, without being personal. That’s useful to readers.

Second—something Mike Long has suggested— why can’t the site do something newsworthy, by regularly assigning a single question? What should Obama say if Dems lose the Senate? What should Republicans do first in the lame-duck session?  Who’s the leading Republican candidate for 2012? If Reid wins, should he run to keep his spot? What should Obama say in his State of the Union? If we do it right, that would be both worth reading, and worth quoting.

In other words: let’s clash, including about this idea, not to make noise but to make a contribution. It might not make any of us the next great American pundit. But it might offer another prize: making PunditWire the next great American blog. PunditWire Initials

Bob Lehrman Former White House Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Lehrman has written thousands of speeches for Democratic politicians at the highest levels, as well as for nonprofit heads, corporate CEOs and entertainers.

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