Who are the talking heads? Political scientists say what journalists can't or won't

Nov 1, 2006

A handful of Illinois political scientists have landed in the Rolodexes of journalists, which gives them, at most, a soapbox for what they call public service. That is, they don't get raises or professional accolades for returning a reporter's phone call at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. 

Some admit they get a buzz from seeing their names tied to insider information or their words published in The New York Times, but they also laugh at themselves for the way they look and sound on television or their addiction to voting patterns and arcane policy debates. Yet, for them, the study of politics is really a tool for change.

"Politics is to me like a plunger is to a plumber," says Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago. 

His quick quips and Chicago accent effortlessly satisfy a reporter's need for a punchy quote. He's had practice through 26 years at Governors State University in University Park, seven years at Roosevelt University and nearly three decades at tracking elections.

Green says he's matured from "the old pro to the wily veteran" in a process he calls "political mitosis." In other words, he frequently wears the hat of an Illinois pundit, a so-called talking head.

But he and the others say they can't take themselves too seriously. "If you think of yourself as a newsmaker, then that's just silly," says Kent Redfield, who has spent more than 30 years embedded in the capital city's political arena.

He started out as a Democratic legislative staffer for Illinois House committees. Now, he's director of the Illinois Sunshine Project, a campaign finance database, and interim director of the Institute for Legislative Studies in the University of Illinois at Springfield's Center for State Policy and Leadership. He also has an appointment in the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, a public policy research unit comprised of educators and researchers at the three campuses of the University of Illinois.

Redfield says his academic appointment comes with the expectation of performing public service. "It's taking my expertise and making a contribution to public knowledge and public debates," he says in the same breath as, "That sounds so terribly pompous. I can't believe I just said that."

But he believes it. 

Offering perspective in the public sphere is his way of trying to increase knowledge among citizens, policymakers and opinion makers. It's just a small portion of political scientists' professional creed — mass education about why this stuff really matters. 

Their mission comes with a few catches, including the responsibility for being an authority on everything from local taxing bodies to congressional elections. 

It also means learning the quirks of media to get their messages out. In addition to accommodating reporters' deadlines and immediately returning their phone calls, the pundits must deliver succinct quotes that fortify a reporter's hypothesis or unveil a completely different perspective. 

And accept it when, as sometimes happens, their brilliant interviews fall victim to an editor's pen, Redfield adds.

But these pundits agree they shouldn't always give the reporter what he or she wants. "A lot of times I have no doubt what the journalist wants the analyst to say," says Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. "It's just that I can't always accommodate them. I may disagree."

He carries on the mission of the late Simon, the former bow-tie-wearing U.S. senator, Illinois lieutenant governor and crusading newspaper publisher. Simon started the bipartisan institute in 1997 with a focus on ethics in government and civic engagement.

"We work directly with policymakers, but we're also a step removed from the process and from the heat of partisan activity," says Lawrence, who teaches political science and journalism.

While he earned a journalism degree from Knox College in Galesburg, he gained most of his expertise through the school of hard knocks. Lawrence spent 25 years as a journalist, including 14 as the state Capitol bureau chief for Lee Enterprises and the Chicago Sun-Times. Then he switched from reporting about executive officials to representing one — he spent a decade as press secretary and senior policy adviser to former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican.

Their mission comes with a few catches, including the responsibility for being an authority on everything from local taxing bodies to congressional elections.

Lawrence has seen his name in print thousands of times, but says, "I get the biggest kick out of seeing my name in print when it comes after the word 'by,' in other words, when I've written the piece myself."

Another role for political scientists is that of translator. Brian Gaines, a marathon-running associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says he tries to make political studies more accessible by cutting away the statistics and jargon, "putting ideas out there that otherwise would just circulate back in academic journals that political scientists write for each other but nobody else ever sees."

Gaines, a native of Canada, moved to Illinois from California and says he naturally drank in this state's politics. Also a member of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs' faculty, Gaines adds a disclaimer that he's not a political junkie because he hasn't memorized all 118 House districts. 

Then again, he has gained an authority on elections and political behavior, mainly through a blend of number crunching and historical analysis.

"It's all about trying to separate different things," he says. "Is it really that George Bush's popularity is what causes Republicans to lose or gain House seats, or is that spurious and it's something else that swings who actually turns out to vote?"

Occasionally, however, he and other political scientists get questions that have nothing to do with their expertise. For instance, Gaines says he was asked to provide expert testimony about the logistics of running a political campaign.

"I said, 'Well, the truth is I've never run a campaign.'" He pointed the inquirer in the direction of a campaign professional.

He also has been asked to be an authority on breaking a tie in a student body election and on whether a farmer was wrong in a crop rotation of corn and soybeans.

John Jackson, a visiting professor in the SIUC political science department and in the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, had the opposite experience. He was recently asked a question that fit within his areas of expertise, but the reporter was the one who had stepped out of his comfort zone.

"In the initial question that he asked, it was clear that he was mixed up about the difference between the state legislature and the Congress. And we're on the air, and the camera's rolling." He politely rerouted the nomenclature and clarified the legislative election analysis. 

Jackson has talked about everything from the American presidency to political parties and public opinion for 38 years. While he says he's been critical of the media at times, he's grown to appreciate their role in helping voters understand "what in the world is going on." 

Feeling a compelling obligation to offer real-world perspective when possible, he says, "We've got to bring more rationality and more hard analysis to the making of public policy because it's often made by emotion and fear and ideology."

But that requires him and other pundits to be as objective and as fair as possible. And that creates the peculiar responsibility of getting close enough to Illinois politics to know the daily buzz around the water cooler but remaining distanced enough to keep a broad perspective on how it all fits together.

In short, politics is a spectator sport. 

Few scholarly pundits spend time in the Illinois Capitol, but they keep up-to-date by reading some of the newspapers in which they're quoted.

But the role of political scientists "isn't to spice things up or to use hyperbole," says Charlie Wheeler, longtime former Chicago Sun-Times reporter and current director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "The challenge is to make it interesting because they explain why this stuff is relevant in the everyday life of the average person."

He notes they share the same challenge as reporters, who have to simplify complex policy issues in a short amount of time or print space, all while trying to avoid losing their readers, listeners or viewers.

So the political scientists' and the journalists' relationship has an impact on the information voters have in, say, an election season.

Louis Liebovich is a journalism professor who analyzes the history and philosophy of media in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He says while reporters use pundits to add credibility and objectivity to their stories, their efforts to seem independent shouldn't restrict them from venturing their own analysis. But it often does.

He says one of his better stories from his days as a political reporter in Rockford was when Ronald Reagan came to town. He was running against Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, when Rockford was changing from a longtime conservative community to one dominated by leaders with a more moderate approach to public policy.

"You could tell by the enthusiasm and by the packed audience that Reagan was bringing almost a religious revival back to the community and checking it with that old conservative spirit that had always driven the community," Liebovich says. "I could have called a political scientist and asked him what he thought that meant."

But he didn't. Instead, he relied on his own observations and simply pointed out how that one moment seemed to have a great impact on the community. 

Offering analysis based on a neutral point of view, however, is difficult, especially in the contemporary case of Illinois' gubernatorial race, he says. The two dominant candidates — Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Republican Judy Baar Topinka — flooded the airways with negative campaign ads and tit-for-tat quotes in news stories.

"It's clearly an election based on personalities and on charges and countercharges," Liebovich says, predicting record low voter turnout for the November 7 elections.

He says even the interested voters are likely to seek political information from Internet sources, such as Web logs, that reinforce their existing beliefs regardless of how factual the information is. 

With no way to force voters to follow state news or to read something that challenges their ideology, Liebovich says, part of the responsibility of spreading information falls upon journalists to produce more issue-oriented news items and political scientists to open the minds of students and peers.

Punditry is one method of educating a wider audience, but political scholars also plant seeds of thought in an actual classroom.

It's not glamourous pacing in front of a group of slouching students clutching caffeinated drinks, but Chris Mooney spurs thought when he tells them about their opportunity to use states as laboratories for comparing public policies.

Mooney's many hats — political studies professor and research associate in the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, founding editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterlyand faculty in the Institute of Government and Public Affairs — show he's first and foremost an educator.

During one of his guest lectures this fall, Mooney made the students laugh by conjuring an image of a political scientist "shuffling back and forth in a bad suit." Then he paced the room in academic thought, one hand in his pocket and the other shifting from chin to waist to chin. He made sarcastic quips about corruption in Illinois politics — "This is the Land of Lincoln. You can do what you want, right?" 

Earlier he spelled out his own reason for talking to the students and to the media: If things aren't going well, researchers have the ability to say, "The emperor's got no clothes."

"Cynicism about politics is the first step towards giving up power to the corrupt interests," he says. "And somebody's got to say, 'No, it doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to have a bunch of crooks running the place.'" 

 

Here they are

Brian Gaines 
The Urbana resident is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with an appointment in the Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
Background 
Born in Ontario, Canada, he earned a doctorate degree from Stanford University. He later became a visiting professor at the Department of Applied Economics at Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and served on two royal commissions in Canada.
Research 
He analyzes elections, political behavior and political institutions by doing his own number crunching and relating day-to-day events to theory that's at least one step away from common knowledge.
Published 
An article in Voting at the Political Fault Line: California's Experiment with the Blanket Primary, 2002, among others.
Hobbies 
He's running marathons on all seven continents within two years, with only Australia left to do in January 2007.

 

Paul Green
The Chicago resident directs  the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago, teaches a class in urban politics, serves as a political analyst for WGN Radio in Chicago and is the program director of the City Club of Chicago.
Background 
He earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago before lecturing at universities in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as teaching at Governors State University in University Park for 26 years. 
Research 
He studies government, politics and elections by analyzing vote returns and getting out in the field to talk to people face-to-face so he can offer a wider perspective.
Published 
Co-authored with Melvin Holli, World War II Chicago and The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition, 3rd edition; other books.
Hobbies He talks politics at the gym, at his many civic organizations and in almost every aspect of his life.

John Jackson
The Carbondale resident is a visiting professor in political science at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Background 
The Arkansas native joined SIUC in 1969 and steadily advanced in the administration until he became the school's interim chancellor in 1999. He served in that capacity for two years, then joined the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in 2002 as a visiting professor.
Research
He's gained expertise in U.S. presidential elections, Congress, and state and local government by coupling academic literature with a lifetime of study.
Published 
Many books, including The Politics of Presidential Selection, with William Crotty, and his most recent occasional paper, The Making of a Senator: Barack Obama and the 2004 Illinois Senate Race.
Hobbies 
He reads newspapers and keeps up on politics and government.

Mike Lawrence
The Carbondale resident heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and teaches political science and journalism.
Background
He's a Galesburg native. Before serving 10 years as press secretary and senior policy adviser to former Gov. Jim Edgar, Lawrence spent 25 years as a journalist. He started out as a sports writer and later specialized in politics and government. He was a managing editor for the Quad-City Times and managed the state Capitol bureaus for Lee Enterprises and theChicago Sun-Times. He received an honorary law degree from Knox College in 1998 and served on the Illinois Courts Commission and the State Board of Ethics. He was named director of the Simon Institute in 2004.
Research 
He has extensive experience in Illinois politics and government, reporting from the Statehouse, then working directly with policymakers.
Published 
Many bylines, including a syndicated political column.
Hobbies 
He runs up to five miles a day, six days a week and does crossword puzzles.

 

Christopher Mooney
The Rochester resident is a political studies professor and research associate of the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, the founding editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterly and on the faculty in the U of I's Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
Background 
He was a policy analyst for the Wisconsin Department of Development before receiving his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lectured and researched at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom and directed West Virginia University's political science graduate studies before coming to Illinois to direct the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Research 
He compares state politics, cause-and-effect relationships of political behavior and policymaking by using states as laboratories.
Published 
Founder and editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterly, for which he received recognition from the American Political Science Association; books, including Lobbying Illinois: How You Can Make a Difference in Public Policy, with Barbara Van Dyke-Brown.
Hobbies
He's a musician.

Kent Redfield
The Springfield resident is a political studies professor and interim director of the Institute for Legislative Studies in the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Springfield; director of the Illinois Sunshine Project, a campaign finance database; and on the faculty in the Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
Background 
He earned a doctorate from the University of Washington in Seattle and became an urban specialist. He worked four years for the Illinois House Democrats as a committee staffer, then joined the University of Illinois at Springfield to run the Illinois Legislative Staff Intern Program in 1979. He was the research director of the Illinois Campaign Finance Project, which produced the "Simon-Stratton" report in 1996.
Research 
He researches campaign finance and the role of money in Illinois politics and ethics through the Illinois Sunshine Project, which is funded by the Joyce Foundation. It standardizes data derived from public documents filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Published 
Many books, including Money Counts: How Dollars Dominate Illinois Politics and What We Can Do About It.
Hobbies 
He golfs in the summer, bowls in the winter and watches any organized sport year round.

Illinois Issues, November 2006