What It’s Like to Be a Professional Political Pundit in Vancouver
The unexpected side effects of getting paid to argue on television.
February 1, 2017
As both a gay man and a vegetarian, J.J. McCullough may not be your typical conservative, but the right-leaning, moustachioed political pundit has made a name for himself in Canadian media with his smart, insightful commentary across print, TV and radio. It isn’t always easy to live your life primed for a debate, though. Here, the Vancouver-born pundit opines on his own career:
What does a political pundit actually do?
I’ll write opinions columns. Sometimes it’s freelance writing that I pitch, or often people come to me and like my perspective. There’s usually an appetite for representing a diversity of voices, and I’m pretty consistently on the conservative side of the divide, and I brand myself that way. I do television hits as well—I just go on an pontificate on a panel or one-on-one with a host. The essence of TV is conflict, so they like people who are consistent and predictable and offer a difference of perspective.
I also do cartoons, and I do radio hits. In this day and age, in order to be a pundit, you have to be able to articulate yourself in as many mediums as possible. Twitter is pretty much essential for any commentator of note: increasingly, that’s how your opinions get published. A lot of journalists are rather lazy, and when you’re doing a quick survey about where the leading loudmouths stand, they just give the feed a survey and see what left or right are saying and just slot it into the article. Some of my more influential opinions are just ones I’ve expressed on social media, and they gained traction from there.
How did you get into this nebulous business?
I started doing cartoons when I was still in high school and those got attention, and I started doing more writing to contextualize the drawings on my website, and that in turn got attention from different publications that saw I could write. Once your writing is published a little more widely, producers on television or radio assume you must be able to talk as well, and book you to do TV and radio that way. It’s been a slow, organic, naturally growing process. Every year, I feel that more editors and producers are aware of who I am, and get more exposure that way. I think one of the true facts of life is that if you want to succeed, at some level you just have to start doing what you want to do, whether or not anybody’s paying you for it. That’s something I’ve learned. I started sharing my opinions with everyone, and eventually people thought I was doing a good job or was at least making relatively insightful points.
At what point do you get paid for your opinions?
The challenge is increasingly finding someone to pay you. There is an absence of funds to pay content producers, that’s well known. The fact is that opinion journalism is one of the first things to go [for publications] because at the end of the day, the idea about opinions is that everyone has one and therefore they’re not really worth much. If you only have so many dollars, are you going to spend them on the aspects that seem the most easily justified (equipment, travel for reporters) or pay some guy to beak off about whats bugging him about Justin Trudeau this week?
More opinion journalism is being done by people that are willing to express themselves for free. That includes folks that have a book out that are using media exposure, or professors, or you’ll have the politicians themselves. A lot of editorials that you’ll read are straight-up written by the politicians (or their strategists). The challenge for people like me is to prove why a “professional” can offer a more substantial or interesting or significant context to the point.
It’s interesting that you’re saying free work is devaluing the opinion piece, even though you also say you should start doing what you want to do whether you get paid for it or not.
Yes, in the initial days I did it for free. I went on shows and radio, but I tried not to do writing for free. But at some point there’s nothing wrong with demanding what you feel your worth. I gave these people a taste and then say, “If you want to keep this good thing going, it’s going to come at a cost.” You’ve got to have that self -confidence. Opinions, as much as they treat them flippantly—”Oh, they’re knee jerk reactions!”—forming a coherent worldview and being a useful analyst for the political scene takes some investment and some knowledge and education. Everybody can think of people they know that have good or bad opinions. Not because you agree or disagree, but because they’re well-thought-out and well-presented arguments.
How do you keep yourself constantly educated about what’s going on in the world? What’s your media diet?
I spend a lot of time on social media, which I’ve curated so that it’s basically a non-stop stream of headlines and other opinions journalists. It’s entirely possible to curate your feeds to be just like one of those news scrawls, with links and headlines are being thrown at you non-stop. I listen to a lot of news podcasts because I enjoy that passive style of consuming information, when you’re walking or commuting. It does become exhaustive at some point, though. You can’t really afford to consume it the way other people do, dipping in and out on their own time or only in topics that personally interest.
You brand yourself as a conservative, which makes you a bit of an outlier here on the liberal West Coast. Do you feel like you have to constantly defend your views?
I’m a sensitive person, so it does take an emotional toll. One of the problems with politics today is that it’s become very personalized. Political opinions have fused with identifies, as much as class or gender identity, and that is something that’s difficult to overcome. When your political opinions become part and parcel with something much deeper and more personal, it’s difficult to challenge someone else’s opinions without it seeming like a direct attack. I see this a lot. I see strangers who don’t know me, but because of some opinion I’ve expressed on tax policy, they infer larger conclusions about the sort of person I am, or assumptions about other beliefs that are apolitical, or assumptions about what I must be like to hang around. That’s upsetting. As someone who can compartmentalize, I can have strong disagreements politically, but I can turn it off at some point. But there’s more pressure to never flip that switch. That’s the case with the right and left wing. It’s a hyper-divided, hyper-politicized time.
What’s your relationship like with other pundits?
As long as it doesn’t get personal, I enjoy the cut and thrust of [the debate]. When you speak to other pundits after the show, there’s mutual respect. When you’re on TV or radio and being asked to debate extemporaneously on issues, you need a specific skill set, and when someone can best you in an important debate, you have to respect their talents as a journalist. I’ve had good relationships with other pundits I’ve dealt with regardless of where we’ve sat on the political spectrum.
What do you like best about this job?
The amount of freedom you get. It’s essentially a freelance job for the majority of the time, or a multi-faceted thing. There’s no one job title that just says “pundit.” It’s a career identity that in practice entails a bunch of activities and different styles of labour. The good thing is that you have a lot of freedom during the day, and it’s not overly structured. You do things at your own pace and time. You revolve it around deadlines and appearances, but between that you can meet friends during the day or take a break. That’s very attractive to me.
What have been some career highlights for you?
I’ve recently started writing for the Washington Post which has been really exciting. It’s a prestigious publication; I can drop that name and people immediately understand. When I was working on TV for Sun News, that was a highlight for me. The network was ultimately unsuccessful, but I was on television almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and I was a valued member of the team. At that moment, even though it was for a small-time, unsuccessful network, I achieved a dream I thought about when I was teenager and you would see the same commentators on CNN regularly. It was cool to think I was doing their job, too.
What happens when someone recognizes you from your TV spots on the street?
It’s always a bit awkward because I often don’t know what to talk to them about. It’s sort of like… if someone is so plugged into politics that they can recognize a commentator as obscure as me, they’re probably pretty serious about politics. That’s a lot of pressure to be “on,” and have an insightful thing to say, but at the same time… it’s hard to get beyond the natural aversion we all have to start squawking about politics to a total stranger. Even if someone says they like you, I feel uncomfortable to have a very passionate debate with a stranger—it feels weirdly intimate. Which is kind of hypocritical, since I’m always barking my opinion at strangers from behind a camera or the page.
How important is your appearance?
I think you have to carry yourself with confidence. Your poise and your demeanour and your attitude and word choices are very essential. You can have all the facts at your disposal, but if you’re nervous or awkward, it really doesn’t matter: your first impression will be that you’re not worth taking seriously. I think memorizing facts or figures or a line of argument is not as challenging as merely being confident or self-processed. I always get nervous or get the butterflies. There’s so much pressure and judgement that comes with the spotlight. It’s the same with writing, too. You think a lot about your word choices, and think about your sentence carefully, because if someone grabs it out of context, will you be able to defend it?
Do you think you’ll be doing this a long time?
The political world is getting so polarized and so personal…and the profession is really starting to reward a kind of persona I don’t think I have: a very, very tough person that really likes fighting and likes the combat, and likes being hated, having enemies and loves making a blood sport out of debate. But it’s a profession like any other, and you have to address market demand. It can take an emotional toll on you.