Sunday, March 26, 2023

Professing about Punditry: Calculating Value Over Replacement Pundit, Canada Edition

I look puzzled or annoyed as the anchor
got my title wrong, suggesting I run NPSIA
I have been thinking a lot lately about profs and punditry.  To start, I am just going to accept that profs who appear on TV are "pundits" as the definition of a pundit is: "an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give opinions about it to the public."  Yep, that's us, among other folks.  Plenty of profs who aren't pundits, plenty of pundits who are not profs, but those who profess in the media are, indeed, pundits.  


This came up last week at the International Studies Association as there was a panel on "How Not To Bridge The Gap" which is about as deceptive as one can get in a panel title since it was really about how to bridge the gap--how to have the academics talk to the policy people and vice versa.  After a couple of decades of Bridging the Gap [BTG], a group dedicated to fostering the exchange, and a few years of a bit of that in a Canadian accent--the CDSN which has as BTG as a founding partner--folks are now asking about whether this is a good thing, whether it is dangerous, how to do responsible engagement, and such.

While all of this can be and should be quite complicated, I have a basic take on whether or not to do media stuff (and since I do a fair amount, you can guess where this is headed):

  1. We get public money to do our research, so we should give back.  Indeed, many grant applications require a dissemination plan.
  2. A fundamental part of professing is to disseminate knowledge.
  3. And if not us, then who?

This last thing is my focus today and was when I piped up from the audience last week.  That if we don't speak, the media will find someone else to fill that time slot, that page, that podcast, whatever.  So, one must ask themselves if one can bring more to something than whoever else they might get or whether one might not be as fit for that topic or issue than whoever else they might get.

This is where I borrow a concept from the analytics revolution in sports.  There have been all kinds of ways to measure the value of baseball players compared to each other, basketball players (one measure is called RAPTOR!), and so on.  My personal favorite happens to be from baseball.  I like it so much both because it has a good conception and has a fun acronym is VORP: Value Over Replacement Player.  This enables one not only to assess how a generic player in their position in the same season or time frame, but to compare players at different positions or in different time frames.  While technology, strategy, and medical care and the rest have changed over time, we can use this measure to figure out the relative value of players from different generations.  Babe Ruth is still #1 followed by Walter Johnson, Cy Young, and then Barry Bonds and then Bonds's godfather Willie Mays (this settles the Mantle/Mays thing).  I am happy to see Tom Seaver above Greg Maddox, that Seaver was much better than the replacement level starting pitcher of his era compared to Greg Maddox to the replacement level starting pitcher of his era.  In basketball, this puts Lebron over Jordan, which folks might disagree with just a bit. 

The point is not to stir up a debate about sports, but the idea of measuring someone compared the person a team could get that is easily available--off the street, from the waiver wire, from the minor leagues, whatever.  When it comes to media stuff, the producers of the various radio, television, podcast, and other programs need to fill content, so they will grab someone, anyone, to fill in a spot.  So, the point I raised at the conference and part of the reason why I do media stuff is: would we rather have a knowledgeable expert or some schlub off the street?  

Of course, they don't get just any schlub, they go to the experts who are already on their rolodex (to date myself even further).  We tend to see mostly the same folks again and again depending on the issue, so the question is, for every expert, are they more expert or less (dare I say it) hacky than the person who might be called instead?  

The VORP in sports is easy to calculate even if what goes in the calculations can be and is debated--how much does excellence at anyone time count compared to lifetime achievement, etc.  In punditry, how do we calculate VORP?  It will be less about what is quantified and more about what can be compared and ranked.  So, what may be in the minds of the producers and should be in our minds as we come up with a Value Over Replacement Pundit:

  1. How well they know the topic at hand?  Some folks are super sharp at one thing, others know a bit about a lot.  This measure here is about how much they know about the specific topic?
  2. What is their range?  How broadly can they speak?  Because you know the anchor is going to go off script and ask questions that are not necessarily in the strikezone.
  3. How articulate are they?  Can they speak/write clearly and dynamically?  I will mention my Lebron/Babe Ruth in Canadian circles on this measure below.
  4. How measured or responsible are they?  Folks saying that war between US and China is inevitable, for instance, have a lower VORP because they may very well be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  My speculating about terrorism in 1996 Lubbock should have set my VORP at a negative number.  On the other hand, I was far more responsible last March about calls for a No Fly Zone than a bunch of retired military officers in the US and Canada. 
  5. Availability: in sports, health is a gift/attribute in its own right, which means that some players rank higher because they can play most days.  Kevin Durant's VORP has been hurt by his various injuries.  In the pundit game, the question is whether one is willing to do it a bit, some, or a lot.  This can obviously tradeoff with expertise/responsibility pieces. 

There are probably other ingredients/variables, but let's stick with those for now, and folks can suggest additional ones.

The first item--how well they know the topic--allows us to bring in the positions from sports.  That one can have a high VORP if one is playing a position they are good at and a low one if they play one that is not their strength.  Babe Ruth has an incredible VORP because he was both a terrific hitter and an amazing pitcher.  So, some folks will have high Value Above Replacement Pundit because they know a lot about a lot, and they have the other key ingredients. In thinking about this and my experiences both in the media and watching other folks, I thought I should use a few key issues to highlight who has a high VORP.  And, yes, this was partially inspired by watching two NPSIA colleagues and one PhD student absolutely rock the Canadian intelligence beat.  

So, enough with the explanations and definitions, who has a high VORP in Canada?  Note, this is illustrative, not exhaustive.

I think number one on Canadian foreign policy, broadly defined, is Roland Paris.  He brings his years of academic experience on peacekeeping and international relations to bear along with his various times in government at different levels.  He is simply terrific at articulating complex stuff--his quotes today about Biden's visit to Ottawa were both accurate and delightful.  He is also very responsible--he's not going to say something that is wildly speculative.  If I were a producer, I would always go to him first on damn near anything.  When I appeared on TV with him once, I just basically said: "I agree with Roland." It did not make for good tv.  Bessma Momani has wide-ranging expertise, is compelling and clear, so she's a great go-to for Canadian relations with a variety of places.

On intelligence matters, Canada has quite a few folks who are super sharp on this: Stephanie Carvin, Leah West, Jess Davis, Artur Wilcyznkski, and Craig Forcese clearly have very high VORPs (I think Amar Amarasingam does too, but I haven't seen as much of his stuff).  Stephanie, Leah, Jess, and Craig have done extensive research, Artur has far more experience than the others in government in so many spots (he is a great podcast co-host for a couple of the podcasts on the CDSN Podcast Network).  Each are quite responsible, sticking within their lanes of expertise, not speculating wildly, and not having any ideological axes to grind (that's a hint for many of the folks who have low VORPs--who tend to dominate the editorial pages).

On defence stuff, Thomas Juneau has among the highest VORPs because he has academic and policy expertise, a willingness to do the media stuff, is excellent in both official languages. Stéfanie von Hlatky would have the highest defence VORP except she does not do that much media.  I wish she did more as she is super responsible, knows the Canadian defence scene, knows the US and NATO well, again strong in both languages.  I had fun watching her at a couple of NATO summits where the Canadian media grabbed us to "scrum" with them.  

Of the columnists, I think Shannon Proudfoot easily has the highest VORP.  Her columns always are well reported, provide valuable perspective, making one see things from a different angle.

Where do I fit in?  I think I have a decent, positive VORP score, but not as strong as those mentioned above.  I am not as articulate or as responsible.  I have a wider range than most, except perhaps Thomas and Roland (reminds me of the polls that show that men are far more confident about landing planes or battling bears), but with that greater willingness to talk about stuff at the edges of my expertise, I say stuff like Ukraine is going to lose the war.  I was wrong (many were wrong about that).  I should have been a bit more circumspect about potential predictions even while being clear as I could why a No Fly Zone was super dangerous. I did have fun saying "your guess is as good as mine" when an anchor went against the instructions asking about the pipeline sabotage.

One of the things I have been emphasizing in recent years is saying no to the media where my VORP trends negative or where I know folks who have much more value.  During the Vance/McDonald/Sajjan stuff of two years ago, I kept directing the media to people who studied gender and the military.  I was far more willing to talk when the story focused on civilian control of the military, something I study.  I have declined to speak much about balloons or about election interference as I really don't have that much to say.  I really don't know much about China, for instance. 

I will speak beyond my areas of expertise on the Battle Rhythm podcast because it is a smaller audience, I can edit myself afterwards, and my co-host and guests can and will correct me.  For a five minute hit on radio or TV, the anchor person is not going to push back if I say something wrong.  They may want me to do so since it might make for better tv.  

Who has negative VORPs, where a replacement pundit available off the street or waiver wire would be a significant improvement?  I could name a few obvious retired senior military officers, but that would be unnecessary.  I could also name some columnists for national papers in Canada including one who used to own a bunch of them before/after? he was convicted.

So some caveats here--I don't watch as much tv and I certainly don't listen to too much radio, so I am mostly influenced by the times I have appeared with other folks.  And, yes, most of the people listed above are very good friends.  I don't think I have to agree with someone to give them a high score.... but it probably doesn't hurt. Does that make me biased or do I simply hang with people with high VORPs?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

There is a tradeoff I forgot to mention in the first posting of this: if you say no a lot, they won't come back.  Which can be cool if one does not want to be bothered.  But saying yes a fair amount means that when I do say no, I can refer them to sharp, younger people who they don't know about, and this allows me to connect the media to diverse voices.  And they often listen.  The media wants good people, but they also have lots of time pressure, so they often go to the easiest get.  But if you give them help, they will add to their rolodex.

Feel free to nominate in the comments folks in the Canadian IR media space who are at either end of the VORP spectrum or in between.


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