News & Politics

The Other Election

City elections are predictable, but a vote at the Post disappointed some progressives

Polls hadn't closed anywhere in the country when feminist writer and Jezebel founder Anna Holmes tweeted: "Disappointment of the Day, #1." She was referring not to any of the Congressional or gubernatorial elections taking place around the country but to the results of the Washington Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest. For the second year in a row a white man, this time Georgetown University graduate student Conor Williams, won the contest, beating out non-profit consultant and gay rights advocate Nancy Goldstein for a three-month contract with the Post.

Holmes wasn't the only disappointed commentator. Jamelle Bouie, a writing fellow at the American Prospect tweeted "America wants to hear the thoughts of ANOTHER WHITE GUY," and Gawker's Hamilton Nolan joked in a headline "Next Great Pundit Same as Last Great Pundit."

While it's disappointing that the contest didn't produce a candidate who will diversify the Post's stable of commentators, that's never really seemed to be explicitly the point. Rather, the contest has, from its inception, seemed to be more about proving that the Post can identify, and then make, stars:

Beginning on or about Oct. 30, ten prospective pundits will get to compete for the title of America's Next Great Pundit, facing off in challenges that test the skills a modern pundit must possess. They'll have to write on deadline, hold their own on video and field questions from Post readers. . . . We'll set our promising pundit on a path to become the next byline in demand, the talking head every show wants to book, the voice that helps the country figure out what's really going on. 

But if that's the point, the contest seems to be something of a failure before Williams even pens his first column. He took the prize with an anemic 1,559 votes to Goldstein's 1,167 and a third candidate, Lauren Hogan's, 707. That 3,433 votes is just 0.55 percent of the Post's 623,784 2010 circulation. It could be that the midterm elections or other factors distracted voters, but even if there had been triple the turnout, participation still would have been relatively small, especially given the marketed stakes.

So what do those numbers prove? That Georgetown grad students are better at organizing online voting campaigns than gay rights activists and feminists? That Washington Post readers like their opinions delivered by white men? That a part-time, term-limited gig at the Post just isn't the plum it once might have been? Probably the latter, if the results of the contest prove anything at all.  Last year's winner, Kevin Huffman, hasn't exactly quit his day job at Teach for America. Being America's Next Great Pundit, it turns out, might not change your life, or the larger pundit landscape, very much.

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